Part two in a three-part series on Enjoying the Holidays
Spending time with people you love and grew up with can be wonderful, stirring hope for meaningful connections.
Sadly, it also can invite old, unproductive family dynamics: painful emotional patterns and ways of being better left in the past. Sometimes it seems nearly impossible to stop these familiar feelings and dynamics from joining the party. However, with a little forethought, you can take steps to prevent these unwelcome emotional guests from crashing your festivities, or at the very least, you can limit the damage they cause should they happen to arrive.
Given that we can’t always prevent others (or ourselves) from slipping back into painful old ways of being, what’s the recipe for keeping family gatherings heavy on the positive and light on the negative?
It takes a dash of self-awareness, some planning, and a clear-eyed consideration of what really works for you and your family.
Most of us would like to think we come from a perfect family. The truth is few of us do -- there are no perfect families. Odds are you grew up with folks who have some characteristics you treasure and some that you loathe. Odds are your family still has a similar mixture of lovely treasures and lumps of coal.
Groups have their own dynamics that are different from pairs. Think about the personalities of those people with whom you will be gathering over the next few weeks. You probably already know who is likely to cause trouble. Reflect on the emotional dynamics of your family and friends, and your place in these dynamics, before things boil over. This will help keep you from blowing your lid.
If your family is gathering together, consider the personalities and needs of the individual characters – including yourself. If you go crazy every year when your sister demands too much attention from the family, try to figure in advance out how to provide her with the attention she craves. Give her a place of honor at the dinner table, ask her to sing a Christmas song, or let her bring a dessert -- whatever you imagine will float her boat. If your father always gets antsy and irritable sitting around all day, set aside some tasks he can do that might help you and keep him occupied. Sometimes breaking off into pairs is a nice break from an unpleasant situation. Alternatively, try to limit the time you spend as a group; smaller doses can make everyone happier in the long run.
Breaking with Tradition:
Breaking with tradition may sound a little Grinch-like, but it’s a great way to avoid bad experiences and negative feelings. It can even help create new traditions that bring more joy during the holidays.
Sometimes when families that live far apart convene for the holidays, everyone feels compelled to spend all their time together, to make up for lost time and great distances. But this can become a strain in itself that limits positive emotions.
Remember to “check the pot” often and if necessary, take off the lid to release a little steam. If you start to feel yourself returning to the emotional life of your childhood or adolescence, take a break: talk to someone who understands, take a walk, or do something constructive apart from your clan. Try to get a grip on yourself before you “stir the pot”.
It’s hard to change traditions, but if your goal is to enjoy yourself sometimes that’s what needs to be done. Think about traditions that no longer bring you pleasure – and perhaps never did; these are perfect targets for change.
Years ago my family stopped giving holiday gifts to adults because it had become too expensive and stressful: giving gifts just to check off a list, feeling our gift was too little, or too much, or just wrong. Our new tradition is that if we want to give another adult a gift, we do it privately. For us, this less public approach to gift giving has turned out to be a wonderful gift in and of itself.