I am well aware by witnessing the angst all around me, that the winter festivities and get-togethers are in full swing. Between obligatory work parties, friends’ gatherings, and family dinners, some people feel like running off to the woods and holing up in a cabin until the whole thing is over.
I’ve spoken before on how to successfully navigate family holiday gatherings, so if you need a primer, listen to me being interviewed about this topic.
Another helpful article I was interviewed for:
Lastly, if you have food/body image issues and these are triggered during the holiday season, read this:
How to Reframe Family Gatherings as a Chance to Grow
Over 20 years ago, I had the incredible fortune to be taught by one of the greatest authorities on Family Systems Therapy, the late Dr. David Freeman at UBC. Dr. Freeman became my mentor and guide on how to be an effective therapist, and over 20 years later, he still is. He inspired me so much when I was doing my MSW, that I went on to complete a two-year-post graduate training at a Pacific Coast Family Therapy Training Association which he helped found in Vancouver in the 1980’s. By the time I had finished that training, I was completely confident in my abilities to carry on the tradition of Family Systems Therapy with my own woman-centered, empowerment style added on.
I can still remember sitting in his class just before the winter holidays, after learning to become ‘curious’ and non-judgmental of my own family-of-origin. He smiled at all of us and said: “I realize that most of you will be spending time with your families over the holidays. Just be warned- you will forget everything you’ve learned here and go right back to being a kid when you’re there and that’s normal. We’ll have lots of material to work with when we reconvene in January”.
In other words, no matter how much therapy you’ve done working through your ‘unfinished business’ with your family-of-origin, and how evolved you feel you have become in relation to these relations, when you all cram together for the holidays for an intense period of time, your reptilian brain will take over- your fight, flight, or freeze reactions- and you will have a very difficult time using your neocortex, or rational mind to get you through the visit. Why, you may ask?
Because nobody in the world can trigger us emotionally (i.e., push our buttons) like our families! To our great surprise and often utter disappointment, we find ourselves exploding in rage, sadness, or shutting down emotionally during such get-togethers because our family members know the exact buttons to push that send us right into emotional reactivity. When we get back home and go and see our trusted therapist, her/his job is usually to ‘peel us off the ceiling’ of heightened emotional reactivity and get us back into using our higher brain to take the edge off and find some healthy detachment.
On the other hand, there is usually a great deal of love for each family member, thus the reason we keep going back to those yearly gatherings despite the emotional intensity. There is also something that I believe is sacred in most families- many of these folks have known you for your entire life and even if they don’t always understand you, they stay committed to you for the long-haul. I realize that unfortunately, there are very dysfunctional families riddled with mental health issues, addictions, and abuse so if this applies to your particular situation, you can ignore what I just said about ‘most families’. However, even if you belong to a very dysfunctional family-of-origin, the following tips can be universally helpful in dealing with those times you find yourself wanting to rip someone’s head off, so you may want to read on.
Esther’s Top Three Tips for Dealing with Family Over the Holidays
Tip #1: Become a curious observer
In my family systems training, one piece of sage advice was to take a step back while with family and do your best to become a ‘curious observer’ of family members. The more I study Buddhism and Mindfulness techniques, the easier this becomes. For example, when meditating, you are instructed to ‘watch’ your thoughts and emotions, rather than be swept away by them. The same is true with family- pretend you’re an investigative journalist covering the story of this particular family and study them with curiosity.
Here’s an example to give you the gist of how this works:
Ellen, 24, is a fourth-year university student majoring in Psychology and feels pretty good about her life, her independence, and the direction she wants her life to go. She has a winter break, and goes back home to her family for the holidays. The minute she steps through the door of the family home, she witnesses her parents yelling at each other about how to properly cook a turkey. They are frazzled, irritated, and exhausted from all of the holiday preparation. They notice her and each give her a quick hug and kiss, and then retreat into the kitchen to deal with the turkey. Ellen’s younger sister, Joy, is lying on the couch in the living room engrossed in a text-fight with her boyfriend and barely notices Ellen’s arrival. Ellen is now feeling quite angry at her family because she just flew across the country to be with them, and they’re all caught up in their own dramas and aren’t giving her the warm welcome, she expects and wants, and feels she deserves.
She’s about to explode and scream vicious words to all who can hear, when she remembers what her therapist told her to practise during this visit: curious observation. So, she puts her stuff down, and locks herself in the nearest bathroom where she takes a few deep belly breaths and says to herself: “This is a chance to see my family in a whole new way and to let go of my emotional reactivity which has been a long-standing habit pattern ever since I was little. I am in flight or fight mode and I’m going to keep breathing deeply until I feel grounded in my body and then I’ll go back in there with them and practise being a curious observer.”
Once she has calmed down, she decides to become curious about her parents’ stress levels and why they are so emotional. She goes into the kitchen, sits on a chair and says to her parents: “I’m so glad to be home for the holidays. I see how much work you’re putting into this dinner and I can only imagine how stressful it is to cook a huge dinner for all the guests coming tonight. How can I help lighten the load on you guys?”
Her mother begins to cry and runs towards Ellen and says, “Oh honey. I’m sorry I’m so distracted. I’m so glad you’re here. And yes, it would be great if you could give us a hand. We’re in over our heads. Can you clean, cut and prepare the three vegetable dishes so we can figure out the turkey and dessert?”
Ellen gives herself a mental pat on the back for detaching herself enough from the situation to realise that her parents’ behaviour had nothing to do with her at all, and when she practised being curious and non-reactive, she received the affection she was longing for and also had a chance to give back to her parents and lighten their load.
Then Ellen decides to try the same technique with her younger sister Joy, who is now off of her phone and sitting on the couch looking really sad. Ellen sits down next to her and wraps her arms around her and says, “Fighting with the boyfriend?” and Joy cries in her sister’s arms and tells her the whole story of the fight and how hopeless she feels about the relationship. Ellen just sits with her until she’s done crying and says, “I’ve been there too sis. Relationships can be so hard sometimes.”
In the end, she feels much closer to her family, they all help with dinner preparation and end up having a great evening.
Tip #2: Take regular breaks to reduce emotional reactivity
Another trick I’m sure you’re all familiar with when the going gets tough is to “take a time out”. When I teach this to my clients, I have them straighten their arm outright and put up their hand, pretending it is a mental STOP sign. Then I instruct them to get away from the potentially explosive situation for at least ten minutes so they can avoid acting out and saying or doing things they would regret later.
From the previous example, you can see that Ellen practised taking a time out almost immediately after arriving at the family home to deescalate herself emotionally and avoid being hurtful towards her family members and it worked. Her therapist warned her before she left: “You will have to take as many breaks as you need while you’re back home to take care of yourself emotionally and not cause harm to your loved ones.”
As it turned out, Ellen ended up taking a minimum of THREE breaks a day while spending intense family-time with her relatives. Things really amped up when her grandmother showed up, took one look at Ellen and said, “You’ve gained weight Ellen. May I suggest you skip dessert?”
Tip #3: Take notes for future therapy sessions
Another great technique for staying out of family drama and acting as the mature adult you see yourself to be when you’re not around family is to bring a journal or a laptop with you and each evening before you go to bed, write down at least five things you learned about your family and yourself that day that surprised you. This helps keep you in a curious, more detached state emotionally so that you can actually enjoy the time you spend with relatives. Here’s an example from Ellen’s journal from her first night back home:
- I learned that when my family members are emotionally reactive, they aren’t able to be here in the present moment. I also learned that it’s not personal or about me in any way and the best way to approach them is lower my own emotional reactivity so that I can be present for them and for myself in a way that feels good.
- I learned that my younger sister is having a hard time navigating romantic relationships and that I can be of help by reaching out and sharing what I have learned with her about this part of life. I also realized that it’s not my job to ‘fix’ things for her, nor can I. I need to simply be here for her and have faith that she can figure this stuff out and that I believe in her.
- I learned that my grandmother has food/body image issues and that she projected them onto me. When I take a step back, I can have compassion for the fact that she has never made peace with food or her body and choose to let it slide off me as it’s her ‘stuff’, not mine.
- I learned that people go into fight or flight mode when they’re highly stressed and placing unattainable goals for themselves- like my parents trying to do the entire dinner for ten people on their own. I realised that I can help them let go of the emotional reactivity by stepping in and offering a helping hand and showing that I understand why they are so stressed. And the bonus is I now know how to cook a whole turkey!
- I relearned that it is vital to my mental health to take at least 20 minutes out of every day to meditate in a quiet, private place where I can be alone and just focus on belly-breathing. A very cool outcome I wasn’t expecting was that my younger sister got curious about what I was doing and asked me if I could teach her how to meditate. One afternoon, we meditated side-by-side peacefully and both felt calm and grounded after and she told me she wants to keep practising on her own!