Are Family Gatherings Making You Crazy?
Written By: Mark Smith
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Can you believe that Thanksgiving is already over? So, how did all that wonderful, special Thanksgiving extended family bonding time go for you and yours? Not so perfect? Are there some wacky things that go down in your family system? We have more than our fair share of nuts in our family tree, believe me! Can you play with it a bit, or does it really get under your skin? I used to have a little cartoon that I would post about this time every year. It showed a stressed out lady bouncing off the walls at a family gathering and it read ‘Understand that just one visit home for the holidays can ruin a whole year of therapy.’ It is funny, but I really don’t believe that. Actually, if you want to grow as a person and advance in your therapy, one of the best things that you can do is go hang out with the whole loony ‘fam-damnaliy’.
Something that I have always said to my clients is ‘never underestimate the power of a gathered family.’ When you get in the not so friendly confines of your family of origin you might shrink down into a little kid and start acting powerless, reactive and completely unlike yourself. You are probably locked in a prescribed family role - the funny one, the successful one, the crazy one, the one nobody takes seriously?
For those of you who were in your 30’s in the 80’s, you probably watched one of my favorite shows of all time, ‘ThirtySomething’. In one of the scenes Melissa shrank in to a little girl in a frilly dress licking a lolly-pop as her controlling father lectured her. She was transported back in time to a place of powerlessness even though she was an established adult.
That can happen. Regressing into old, unhealthy, childish behavior triggered by family dynamics more powerful than I has happened to me many, many times, in spite of all my therapy, knowledge and good intentions. It is all good though. Even if you do get into a painful interchange with a member of your family it can encourage a lot of growth and healing on your part. If you can learn to be real, assertive and non-reactive with your family of origin then you can do it with anybody in your life. The gains that you make in individuating yourself in your family of origin can actually pay off in your marriage.
As Christmas approaches here are some survival tips to prepare you for another lovely dose of family togetherness...
1. Recognize the danger that you face and protect yourself at all costs. What buttons does your family have the unique ability to push in you? If you see it coming you have a much better chance of putting yourself in harms way. Put your armor on before you enter a room filled with highly charged family connections.
Do you mother's subtle put downs want to make you lose it? Does your dad's favoritism make you sick to your stomach? Does your sister's craziness threaten to ruin the holiday spirit? I had a sister pass on Thanksgiving this year due to a toxic relationship with another sister. It was a healthy choice for her. Do what you need to do. You aren't required by law to conform to your family's agenda.
2. If you need to, gain a home field advantage. Last holiday season was a little scary for me as the previous year I had had some embarrassingly reactive moments. I made it safer for myself last year by hosting events. It was more work but I did feel safer and more in control on my home turf.
3. Have solid boundaries but maintain some balance, humor and flexibility. Hanging with family is going to be a bit uncomfortable at times. Focus on a little good family connections even if they come with a price to your comfort level at times. This Thanksgiving I was thankful for a rare chance to connect with my older brother, for more than my fair share of good cards in our double deck bid euchre battles, for quality time with my awesome kids including a P90X session with them and for some great food. I did suffer through some obnoxious behavior but overall it was a good time.
Inspite of your family’s particular form of holiday craziness I want to encourage you to embrace and be thankful for your family. They are your people. You can learn so much about yourself by being around them. Not everybody has family, so treasure them while you can. And a merry dysfunctional Christmas to you and yours!
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