Home for the Holidays: Tools for Revisiting Painful Family Dynamics
Hi loves, this is a little holiday prep for painful family situations. If you prefer to listen, here's the podcast version of this article.
It’s a common experience to have in adulthood: you leave home, only to return to family dynamics like you never left! It’s to be expected, especially if you spent the first decade of your life or more with a family unit: you’re going to naturally assume some of the same roles – and if you’ve done a lot of growth outside of the unit, the other members are going to feel uncomfortable if you choose not to fit in the spot you’ve assumed in the past. Clarity in you creates discomfort in them: disorder doesn’t want to be revealed in contrast to health. So if you’re going home after a long time or after having done a bit of self-work, be ready to face some upset-ness from others who haven’t changed.
If you’re scared to go home this holiday because you’re worried that you’re going to have painful, triggering-situations with your family, this is a collection of tools for moving through the holiday with balance and grace. So whether or not you decide to skip it this year or move through the experience for the good of the future-you, it always helps to prepare yourself beforehand and have a couple tools ready in your emotional belt. I will cover a few general categories of painful family dynamics – so depending on your level of pain, choose the one that helps give you the healthiest amount of mental distance and support.
~If your family likes to pick you apart: prodding at your weak spots, examining every private nook and cranny on your emotional and/or physical self, this is a tool you can use before and after the visit. You are also allowed to say, “I don’t want to talk about it,” but when it comes to family members like this – often that only provokes more intense prodding and examination.
• Your tool is called, “The AP-Family Test.” Just like APs and SATs, it requires some prep and memorization. You’re going to study ahead of time for the questions and examinations you might receive from your family. Think of it like the vocab test and you are literally memorizing the definitions.
Grab your journal and a friend you trust. You are going to talk out what your family will do and say and what will make you feel the most uncomfortable and most exposed. Together, you are going to figure out the answers that will best a) distract them away from your vulnerable spot with something more engrossing, or b) appease them. As a third option, on each of these scenarios, I want you to add c) take an emergency phone call from a friend – in this case, you are going to text your study-friend a code word and they are going to call you. When you arrive for your family function, you will seed this lie by saying, “My friend is going through really tough stuff – I have to keep my phone on in case they call.”
For each uncomfortable situation, I want you to think up at least one good response that will get them off your case and one that will distract for a short period of time. A good trick is to bring up something amazing and so big you can’t believe you didn’t tell them yet! Have one of those stories ready – it can be as random as, “I was doing xyz the other day and I found $100!” Then continue the story on from that point. Take up as much time as possible.
~If your family treats you like the outsider: the crazy one with issues – maybe you are the outsider and you are coming back to a pack that has grown even more tight in your absence – this is a tool for you to use.
• Your tool is called, “Ouchy Bingo.” It’s not a true metaphor but it sounded funnier. Here’s how it works. You can play with friends, and you start this game the night before your family gathering. Similar to the AP-Family test, you’re going to create a list of the pain-inducing comments you will most likely hear from your family. You’re going to give each one of those sentences or scenarios a letter: so write down one for “B” all the way to “O.” If you have more than that, create a second row with the number 1. Add rows from there. The more, the better! Now you and your friends are going to place your bets. If you only have 1 row, allot each person 1 bet. If you have more, go up from there.
While you attend your family gathering, keep a secret score – whether that’s on your phone or just in your memory. The next day or even when you get home that night, give out little stamps or stickers to place on the squares that were called out by your family. If anyone gets all of them, they win, “Ouchy Bingo!” The prize can be something silly and ironic –White Elephant style. You can also combine family experiences with your friends to make the game even richer!
What this tool does is help remove the sting from anything that happens during your family dinner. It’s about anticipating the typical barbs and knowing they’re coming – to a comical degree, then removing the power amongst people who “get it” and can see the absurdity of your situation.
~If you are doing work on yourself that requires you process a lot of anger (and that anger is directed at your family): this is a tool for you to use, whether or not you decide to go participate. This can be especially painful because of the issues that are not being voiced can cause you to physically react to the fact that you’re emotionally “taking it” from the people you’re angry at, so your tool is reward-based.
• Your tool is called “Personal Tooth Fairy.” You are going to pick out a reward for yourself: something you really want, that’s not too expensive – an activity or an item that would otherwise feel frivolous, but that you would enjoy.
You’re going to make a bet with yourself, or a friend, based on your family gathering – that you are not going to let any of the typical stuff get to you and you are not going to react. Even if something does get to you – you’re not going to engage with anyone outwardly, because you know you’re not going to get the reaction or understanding that you actually want.
During your family gathering, keep a photo of this reward on your phone skin. Even draw it on your hand. Whatever it is, keep a reminder of it and stare at it whenever you feel your emotions begin to boil. This is what you get when this is over. No matter what, keep your focus.
After the event is over, talk it through with your friend – decide if you really did pass with flying colors. And if you did, reward yourself! You made it through unscathed.
~If you’ve been doing quite a bit of self-work recently (like processing family issues and childhood stuff): this is likely a trigger situation, so it can be especially painful to enter into a holiday situation: you’ve got the old roles and also a lot of open wounds you’re in the midst of suturing. Additionally, when you’re confronting issues for the first time, it can be enraging to witness them in real-time form – almost as though you’re starring in an emotional play that reenacts all of the dynamics that damaged you in the first place. Plus – no one can see that but you, so again you might feel isolated which can cause more pain. If you need to sit this year out, I want to give you permission to do that – because I am guessing you have told yourself “I have to…” Well, you don’t.
• Your tool is called “Double-Overtime.” That’s me giving you an out this holiday. If it’s too painful, sit this one out and watch TV while dog sitting for one of your friends or better yet, join a friend! Blame work – a totally random project came up, but you’re getting paid extra! If that doesn’t fit, do whatever you have to in order to get yourself a clear pass. Yes, I am telling you to lie to protect yourself. Make yourself safe – give yourself permission to put yourself first while you’re in the middle of the tough part of your processing and self-work. Don’t be the martyr, be the thoughtful, loving and rational self-protector that you know you can be.
~If you’re in a vulnerable place in your life – maybe you’ve been through a tough time in your personal life, and you are worried about feeling too raw or exposed around family: you’re likely just dreading the experience though you know that you can handle it. Maybe you’re anticipating a lot of pain because you’re going home without a significant other for the first time, or maybe you just don’t want to have to be “on” for others due to your sadness. Your tool is to help keep you aware of your self-love and retain mental protection from everything around you.
• Your tool is called “The magic button.” It’s called “The Magic Button” but it can be anything precious or special – for example a bracelet or a very delicate broach. It can even be a silk lining on a jacket. If you can’t find an accessory, find a button – one that is less ordinary. Something with a bit of weight or texture – or a shape that’s appealing, that feels good to the touch. Once you have your object, carry it with you to a comforting place in your house. Somewhere you feel safe and comfortable. Once you’re there, hold your object and examine its texture. Know that it represents this space you are in, right now. It embodies everything that is whole and good about you, in this safe place and in this moment you are in right now. This object will keep you tethered to your safe place, no matter what is going on outside of you when you leave here. If you become overwhelmed, hold onto this object. Know that you exist outside of the situation – you have your own life, your own comfort – and no one can take that away from you. This is your sacred knowledge – it belongs only to you, and no one can remove it from you.
You are going to keep this object in a pocket or on your person as you walk through your family gathering. No matter what happens, this object will protect you from all harm: it is your sacred soothing reminder. Hold onto it, run your fingers along the texture, and picture the safe place you exist within – you are shielded emotionally by this thought. Continue to focus on it – your secret emotional protector – your reminder of who you are and your home.
Regardless of your particular family issues, try to remember that people mean well – sometimes they’re just very unhappy or deeply scarred, so they cannot help being cruel. It’s like wandering through life with very bad eyesight: you’d likely break things and run into walls. Well, that’s their nurturing capacity equivalent. Trust that what they are seeing is a projection of the pain and damage inside and it has nothing to do with you – just do what you can to be gentle on yourself and protect yourself when you need to. Detach with love! Remember you don’t “have” to do anything: you are allowed to take care of yourself and remove yourself from a situation if it is harmful to you. Just enjoy this holiday - make it a day that's for you and your happiness, too.
Happy Holidays lovely friends! xox Sarah May B.