Photo by Carl Flor
I used to dread family holiday gatherings.
On one hand, I wanted to see my family for Christmas because we lived in different states and I missed them. I Iove the idea of family gathered around the Christmas tree opening presents together, celebrating and reminiscing over shared memories, and sitting around the dining room table feasting and laughing over inside jokes, bonding in a way only family can, because, well, it’s family, and there’s nothing like being with people you’ve been with throughout your formidable years, who know you in a way no one else could possibly know, even if you told them your entire life story.
But after a few hours together, I felt drained and exhausted. After a week, I was ready to shoot myself, or someone else.
In my twenties, being the token single friend with out-of-state family, my friends would invite me to their family gatherings for the holidays and it always made me feel more lonely to be with their families than to be alone. After all, I was the outsider who didn’t get the inside jokes or shared memories.
I moved out of my parents house when I was 17 and had been traveling to different cities and states every few years like a gypsy. I saw my family once or twice a year when they visited or when I flew home for summer vacation or holiday break. I both dreaded and looked forward to them at the same time. They were always bittersweet visits with a mixture of fun and dysfunction, sometimes the latter outweighing the former causing me to swear I’d never fly home for the holidays again.
Until I forgot just how bad it was and flew home the following year.
To offset the dread, I started using my visits as gauges to measure how far I’d progressed emotionally, spiritually and mentally.
Maybe you can relate… maybe you’ve done a lot of work on yourself, attended seminars and workshops and took the Self-Love Course for Sensitive Souls and you feel strong and grounded in yourself… maybe you’re a boss, give orders and people look up to you at work… or maybe you’ve created a solid network of friends and acquaintances who mutually respect you, and your adulting life is pretty good… and then you fly out to your parents’ house for the holidays, the home you grew up in, and suddenly you’re that awkward 12 year old again, feeling dismissed, neglected and not-enough. You find yourself reflexively repeating past patterns that you were sure you’d broken, reacting in ways you promised yourself you wouldn’t, and feeling familiar old emotions that you thought you’d healed after years of therapy.
You’re deeply hurt by an off-the-cuff remark, verbally attack back in a way that goes against your new spiritual practice of love and oneness, and stew in the remark and your unspiritual reaction for the rest of the trip, unable to let it go.
You thought you were over your childhood issues, you’re an adult now, after all, and you’ve watched all the Super Soul Sundays and read all the Louise Hay books. You’re a spiritual love warrior and you know it because it’s written on your mirror.
But somehow, being around your family has a way of reverting you back to the reactive, unconscious pain body you were before you started studying The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, for the fiftieth time.
So what is it about visiting our parents, brothers, sisters, even grandparents, aunts and uncles that turn us from a content, self-aware adult into a fragile, defensive little child again and what can we do about it?
Here are 4 things that worked for me and allow me to now truly enjoy visiting family for the holidays without fear, dread or energetic drain.
1. Recognize that there’s a science behind why we revert back to old habits and patterns when we’re around family again.
Social scientists call it “family systems theory,” a concept describing the family as a cohesive, intensely connected emotional unit with interlocking behavioral patterns where each member functions as part of a whole system, playing specific roles and following established rules, spoken or unspoken. Each member’s role determines their behavior, interactions and responses to other members and as a result, impacts the other members in predictable ways.
According to Dr. Murray Bowen, the psychiatrist who originated family systems theory, it’s presumed that this interdependent system developed to promote the cohesiveness and cooperation required to protect, shelter and provide for the family and its members. In other words, it’s instinctually a matter of survival.
2. Realize that if you’re subconsciously reverting back into a role, so too is everyone else.
Like you, your brother may have outgrown his role as he’s lived his adult life away from the family unit, learning, evolving and growing, making friends and creating new interlocking connections with others. You may think he hasn’t changed because of the old behavior surfacing, but he may think the same about you.
Understanding the powerful gravity of the family system dynamics to pull each of its members back into the old familiar ways can help to bring more empathy and compassion to each member as they too may be struggling to hold on to their new, healthier ways of living and being.
3. Develop a curiosity to knowing each of your family members in a new way, outside the family dynamic.
My sister once visited me in my studio apartment in California in my early twenties. I had just moved into someone’s converted garage and had my very own backyard for the first time in my life. But it was just a patch of dirt and weeds and I didn’t know how to turn it into a beautiful garden. My sister, with a notorious green thumb and endless creativity, flew out from Connecticut to help me turn my dirt yard into a lush garden.
It was a special sisterly bonding trip for both of us as it was the first time we’d spend quality solo time together, visiting without other family members and as full-fledged independent adults.
The problem was that I’d always been jealous of her. I deeply love her, but being with her reminded me of how inadequate I was. Growing up, she was the popular one in school, the MVP on all the sports teams, extroverted, outgoing, confident and beautiful, with tons of friends. I was the shy, quiet, reserved sister who felt awkwardly uncomfortable around people. I wanted to be more like her but no matter how hard I tried over the years, it just wasn’t enough. My dad once said, “why can’t you be more like your sister?” and that phrase haunted me throughout my school years with others inadvertently saying it to me as well.
“Because I’m me,” I’d say, partly defiantly, but mostly feeling that being me wasn’t good enough.
By my twenties, I’d done what seemed like a lifetime’s worth of therapy to resolve my childhood issues and I was somewhat content with who I was, no longer envious… so I thought.
Her visit triggered my old role of insecure little sister and I fell into the old hurt feelings again. She would say something with the best of intentions and I’d take it to mean that she was saying I’m not good enough or that she’s better than me.
For example, the morning before she arrived, I had walked around my yard meticulously gathering fall colored leaves of yellow, red and orange, placing them in a round glass fishbowl of water. It was to be a centerpiece for my metal patio table for two, a unique homemade decoration that I proudly made. To me, it was something special I made for us, to show my creativity and resourcefulness since I didn’t have much money back then to buy anything, and I thought it would be nice to have a natural centerpiece to put outside where we could sit and eat lunch in between gardening. She’d always been the artistic, creative one and I wanted to show her that I could be creative too.
After we’d been tilling dirt for a while and stopped to take a break, I went into the kitchen to get some water for us and came out to find her dumping out the fishbowl, my beautiful concoction of fall colored leaves and water being tossed out onto the waste pile of uprooted weeds and dirt. She saw me and said, “This is ugly. I’ll get something better for you.”
I immediately turned into that wounded, insecure 13 year old who lived under my sister’s shadow. All the self-improvement, self-love work I’d done on myself… tossed out like the contents of the fishbowl. I felt like she was dumping ME onto the waste pile, like she was telling me I was ugly and not good enough and I should just toss myself into the dirt.
Of course, she wasn’t saying any of that. She had no idea what that centerpiece meant to me. We hadn’t talked about it and she didn’t know I made it or where it came from. To her, it was just an object, probably something the landlord put out. To me, it was a symbol of ME. Her action was a symbol of everything I’d felt growing up and our relationship and roles we’d played together. But the truth is it was just a glass bowl with leaves and water. It was me who infused the object with so much meaning and gravity.
She didn’t mean anything by it. She was helping her little sister. She wanted me to have nice things and she would see to it that the ugly things were taken care of. I didn’t know that back then, even though rationally I kept telling myself that so I’d feel better, but the wound of the 13 year old was too raw to see any other perspective except from the eyes of the inadequate little sister.
Had I known then what I know now, I would’ve stepped outside that moment. I wouldn’t have spent the rest of her visit stewing silently over my hurt feelings, sensitive to every word that came out of her mouth. I would’ve seen it for what it was and made a different choice. I would’ve chose to see my sister as an individual human being with her own life, outside her role of popular bigger sister, and mine of unworthy little sister. I would’ve enjoyed bonding moments with her, untainted by past hurts. I would’ve talked openly about what the fishbowl represented to me, and we could’ve communicated in a deep authentic, honest way.
I would’ve asked her questions about her life with her husband and kids, and listened to her with new ears as if I hadn’t known her my entire life, as if she were a new best friend that I was getting to know. The sister who came to visit me was a new person, having experienced her own adulting, learning and growing outside our old family dynamics, but I kept seeing her as the old person, the sister who was better than me… and I kept seeing myself within the past family dynamics, the girl who could never be as good as her bigger sister. Being stuck in those old roles heavily colored our visit together, blocking us from fully experiencing each other in the present moment and repeating old patterns that were outworn and outdated, patterns that neither of us wanted to repeat and no longer served us in our new lives.
It was an awakening lesson for me, though a painful one, and I wrote her a letter the night she left, apologizing for not seeing her for who she was then but for bringing our past selves into the present and replaying old dynamics like a broken record. We have an incredibly strong relationship today. We always did, it was just covered in the muck of hurt, unresolved feelings and old family systems that we’ve now broken free from.
4. Reaffirm your new and improved self within the old family system by being mindful of old emotional triggers that easily snap you back into past behaviors.
When you’re able to slow down the triggering process by adding mindful awareness to the mix, you can choose to behave in a different way than the old established role and in lifting yourself out of the system’s pull, you help lift other family members out too. In doing so, you start to create a new family system that can be more enjoyable for everyone.
Here’s a broad example. Let’s say in your family system dynamic your dad drinks too much and says inappropriate things (playing his role as the obnoxious alcoholic), your mom cries and makes excuses for him (playing her role as the codependent victim), your brother brushes it all off by cracking jokes and minimizing things (playing his role as the avoider), your sister angrily confronts everyone (playing her role as the fixer) and you try to help everyone see everyone else’s point of view (playing your role as the peacekeeper).
If this is how each of your family gatherings have gone, the next time it happens, do something different. Don’t bring your old peacekeeping self into it. What would you do if this was not your family? What if you were the token single friend visiting someone else’s family for the holiday and this happened?
Sit back and observe the various roles from an outsider’s perspective. What if you aren’t the peacekeeper in this situation? What if there is no peacekeeper? What if you just let them go at it? What if, in the middle of their arguing in the kitchen, you decided NOT to be the calm, rational peacekeeping one and instead, jumped up and down flailing your arms around like a crazy banshee and then left the room? That’s a radical example (though you should try it, it’s fun!), but there are a myriad of choices you could make in that moment. Any of them would disrupt the old habitual system. It’s like introducing a new update to old software. Sometimes the changes are subtle, sometimes it’s like a whole new program.
Reacting in a different way will likely be difficult with all the old emotions swirling back into you but if you could take a step back, outside the emotional density for a moment, you can begin to make stronger, more independent choices, removed from the control of your past habitual reactions, your past role.
You can do this technique for any situation or anytime you don’t want to get emotionally sucked in when triggered.
Establishing a new role within the old family dynamics takes time. But know that even though it might appear that everyone wants to remain stuck in it, they too are unconsciously dispositioned to it, led by the interlocking pieces of each member’s role within the family unit. Family systems theory is about predictability. We predictably interact and react in familiar ways that feed off each other, triggering other family members to interact and react in their old familiar way. How many times have you said, “I don’t want to visit the family this year, it’s the same drama year after year, they don’t change!”
If you start behaving in a different way, disrupting the system, it can no longer function in the way it has been. While it may appear that they don’t change, without your old role being played out, the system begins to dismantle.
All the members will begin to shift, consciously or not, developing a new family system. In time, what once triggered you and the rest of the family no longer carries the emotional charge it once did. Family gatherings can be fun, light and carefree, celebrated in the present moment and unburdened by past energy.