Holidays bring family together...for better AND for worse. Holiday gatherings can be like an Instant Pot of family dynamics. These gatherings turn the heat up fast and cause steam to fly out of orifices after only a very brief period of time. These modern pressure cooker scenarios bring out the best and worst of us.
- Seeing family you don't get to see on a regular basis
- Watching kids gleefully play with toys and with one another
- Eating all of the delicious foods that your family makes best
- Gathering together and sharing meals with all of your extended family
- Reverting to our 13 year-old selves and patterns of interacting with family members
- Watching kids scream, run, and steal one another's toys
- Eating too much of all of the delicious foods that your family makes best
- Gathering together and sharing meals and germs with your extended family in tight spaces with sub-zero temperatures and nowhere to go (or send the kids)
The Unconscious Takes Over
The sugar-hyped, kid-induced chaos can cause a family's pattern of dysfunction to rear its ugly head (think InstaPot quick release valve). And the scenario is only made worse when, despite our conscious mind knowing better, our subconscious/unconscious mind reverts to those same button-pushing tactics that have become a pattern ingrained in a neural network loop in our brain. These tactics might be passive-aggressive digs, half-listening, ignoring, yelling, etc. But perhaps part of what makes this scenario feel so bad is that we have an expectation that this time it will be different....
- This time he'll understand me.
- This time I won't criticize her.
- This time I'll really listen.
- This time I won't let his negative comments get to me.
But alas, this time is not different, and perhaps we shouldn't expect that it should be different. We are wed to our family by blood, but that doesn't mean we share the same ideas, values, priorities, loves, political inclinations, or philosophies on life. And maybe we shouldn't. Dysfunction is defined as, "deviation from the norms of social behavior in a way regarded as bad." When our ideals of norms of social behavior are a Norman Rockwell-esque family holiday gathering (and come on, we all have just a little bit of that thanks to modern social media and Infiniti/Lexus car commercials), there is nowhere to go but down. So perhaps the family gatherings feel odd or dysfunctional because we expect them not to be. My clients often dread this time of year because expectations never measure up which leaves them feeling down. Everyone experiences their own kind of family dysfunction (aka not Norma Rockwell painting), but we don't have to classify it as dysfunction.
Tips for Accepting Dysfunction and Staying Present
What if we accepted that there will be differences of opinions, and that those differences don't have to make anyone right or wrong, good or bad? What if we accepted that we are all a little crazy? What if we accepted that our family members are doing the best that they can given their own life circumstances? What if we accepted a new definition of a "normal" family gathering that included the so-called dysfunction? What if the new Norman Rockwell painting had one kid putting snow in the other kid's ice skates? What if we let go of the mental and physical energy spent thinking and worrying about family issues and enjoyed being in the moment...the twinkling lights, the memories formed, the wine spilled, the laughter, the snow, the family?
Doing so starts with re-focusing the mind on the present and not allowing the neural networks for past hurts and button-pushing to be activated. Tips for staying present in holiday or any other social gatherings ripe with dysfunction (e.g., mandatory fun work events, children's school gatherings, etc.) include:
1. Take a deep breath. Being in a stressed sympathetic state is a surefire way to ignite the negative neural pathways. Breathing takes you into a more relaxed parasympathetic state making it easier to stay focused on the present.
2. Concentrate all of your senses on the moment. Really listen to what the person is saying rather than imagining how you will respond to what they might say like they did when you were 10.
3. Repeat an affirmation to help keep you in the present or pull you back from the dark side should your mind drift there. Something like..."I am calm and enjoying the good in this moment" or if you just can't bring yourself to go all out on the positive affirmation, maybe try something super simple like, "This, too, shall pass."
Practicing these techniques doesn't excuse past bad behavior or give you or other family members a free pass to Mean-ville, but it does allow you not to carry those previous scenarios into the present moment to cloud your enjoyment of the life you are living right now. Carrying that emotional yuck on your shoulders does nothing positive for you, it doesn't get back at the offender, and it doesn't help the people around you now. Although you can use the quick release valve on the Instant Pot, the results are the same, if not better, if you take time to allow things to release naturally., to be patient in the moment and enjoy the end result.