Holding Your Family, Gently

In the weeks leading up to the holidays, I always notice an uptick in anxiety related to the families we were born or partnered into.
I hear it in the therapy room, I see it on social media groups, and read about it in the November/December issues of magazines, which regularly feature articles about how to avoid having Thanksgiving devolve into a family feud.

This anxiety isn’t surprising. Holidays, with their combination of outsize expectations, exponential increase in quantity of tasks that need to be accomplished in any given day, and forced togetherness, have a unique potential for bringing to the surface those family wounds that we may be successfully able to ignore for the remainder of the year. We may find ourselves neatly, almost unconsciously, slipping back into roles (the fragile one, the screwup, the caretaker, the achiever) that we’ve played in our families in the past, even if we find these roles limiting, uncomfortable, or shameful. We may find ourselves having outsized reactions to the behaviors of others – reactions in which we are responding not to what the other person is actually doing, but rather to the meaning that we ascribe to their behavior. We may walk into a celebration hoping that this, maybe, will be the day when our family finally “gets it,” when finally they behave as we need them to, and then feel disappointed and betrayed when they continue to behave as they always have.

So, what can we do? How can we be together with those who form our root system without experiencing old hurts over and over again?

My suggestion is this: hold your family, gently, and meet them, and yourself, with patience and compassion. For many of us, an important first step in learning how to do this is to recognize that the ways in which our family reacts toward us often has little to do with us, and is much more influenced by old family patterns, or by what is going on in their lives. A mother-in-law may ignore you at the dinner table because she hasn’t figured out how to cope with losing her son to another primary family unit. A sister may dismiss your opinions about current world affairs because she has always been the competent one in the family and she struggles with figuring out how to relate to her siblings from a place of commonality rather than superiority. A mother may override your parenting decisions because she is still adjusting to being the parent of an adult. A father may withdraw from an interaction with you because he struggles with connecting to others emotionally.

Of course, approaching others from a place of empathy and compassion does not mean that we must condone or even passively accept all of their behaviors. But if we try to see the world through their lens, and attempt to understand how their own limitations and hurts are shaping their responses to us, then this may allow us to see more clearly when their behavior toward us is nothing personal. And that may help us respond to them in a manner that is compassionate rather than reactive.

I recognize that this simple advice is terribly hard to follow. Holding others – especially those with whom we have emotionally charged relationships – in compassion is an enormously difficult skill to learn. But, like any skill, the more you practice, the more stable, and balanced, and grounded, you will feel.

I wish you a peaceful and connected holiday.

Warmly,

Mirjam

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