Here we are in another hectic month of shopping, preparing, decorating and hoping this year we will actually remember to pause and notice the good parts. Because there are some really good parts. They can just get a little lost in the chaos of the holidays.
Anticipating the upcoming family gatherings, I recently spoke with family therapist, Dr. Jacqueline Hudak, on The Reflective Doc podcast. She has been working with families and couples for over 35 years, and had some key insights and recommendations for us to keep in mind this time of year.
First of all, she views each family as a unique system, with its own culture, history, gifts and conflicts. Rather than identifying one individual who is at fault, or another who is a victim, she sees her role as facilitating growth of the entire unit. When there are particular challenges, such as mood or substance use disorders, it’s not uncommon for the family to focus its concern onto that individual, rather than taking a step back to view the full picture. This is where she may step in and help them draft a new narrative.
Secondly, we discussed how most families want to maintain some kind of homeostasis, to resist the inevitable changes life may bring. For example, even with very positive additions, such as a recent marriage or a beautiful, brand-new baby, the family structure must adapt and broaden to allow this addition, and this can create conflict. Aging members of the family may also struggle with the shift to a less central role in decision-making and tradition-setting.
When we gather with members of our family, we may find ourselves rapidly reverting to long-standing, and not always pleasant, dynamics. Dr. Hudak shares her understanding of the powerful effect our parent and sibling relationships have in shaping our self-concept, through what we call “reflective appraisals” in Interpersonal therapy.
In other words, the way we view ourselves is strongly influenced by the way we are seen and treated by others throughout our lives. When we reenter the family structure, we may suddenly feel like the “shy one” or the “black sheep” and act accordingly, even if it doesn’t match our current, and likely more authentic, selves.
We've all been in a place in our lives when we want to make a significant change, but feel hemmed in by the expectations or assumptions of family and friends. We are understandably influenced by the opinions of others, both due to our desire for connection, as well as our instinctual efforts to hang on to our support network. When we want to try something different, our closest relationships may seem the most difficult to navigate. It can be much easier to tell the stranger sitting next to you on the airplane about your bold plan to start your own business, for example, than it may be to pull aside your sister and share the same news.
Navigating these waters takes patience and self-compassion. If you notice you are responding in ways that you may have as a much younger person, step one is to simply notice this very common experience. Grounding yourself in your current values, whether through meditation, writing, connecting with a close friend or ally, or simply taking a walk with the family dog, can create some space to notice these feelings.
Rather than becoming angry at yourself, realize this dynamic has been in place for years, maybe decades, and will take time and care to change. Many of those I work with in therapy are able to start approaching these events with a compassionate lens, and find they can begin to make changes even in the face of family resistance.
Another challenge this time of year is the common experience of sky-high expectations. As we try to re-experience treasured traditions from past years, many “shoulds” emerge, creating intense guilt if we are unable to recreate these positive memories, especially if we remember an idealized version of our childhood experience. Of course we want to feel the excitement and joy of prior holidays. Most humans long for connection and continuity, and this time of year seems to present so many opportunities.
However, to truly enjoy the moment, we must be paying attention to it. Instead of scanning the room to make sure everything is perfectly displayed, reviewing the menu in our head to confirm that it contains absolutely everyone’s favorites, and worrying that Uncle So-and-so might say something provocative, we must engage in the present moment, even briefly.
Mindfulness may seem ridiculously far off this time of year, between the hustle and frantic planning, but it can provide far more joy and engagement than the optimal table arrangement. Take a moment to connect with your senses, even if they detect something less than ideal.
For example, ask yourself, “What am I smelling?” Perhaps the lovely pine scent of the tree, or cinnamon wafting off of your tea? Or, more realistically, do boys really think they can avoid a shower for the entire winter break?
“What am I hearing?” Are the kids creating a cacophony of delight as they carefully check under the tree for the biggest gift, or are those frustrated shrieks? Can I hear the brave birds who’ve chosen to weather the cold, or are they drowned out by the never-ending leaf blowers of suburbia?
“What am I tasting?” Wait, is this eggnog spiked? Amazing.
Dr. Hudak also recommended finding clarity in your goals for the time together. Are you hoping to debate the latest political news until raised voices quiet the merriment, or can you find some common ground for connection, such as a shared recipe, far-off memory, or a familiar and beloved Christmas album. These moments with family are precious, because time passes while we are focused on other things, and a lifetime is limited.
From my family to yours, I hope you are able to find moments of joy in the holiday season. Be well, take notice, and take care.