She Said, He Said: Navigating family conflict during the holidays
She Said, He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
With the holidays quickly approaching, I thought I’d reach out to see if you can help with an ongoing issue. My wife and I traditionally spend Thanksgiving with my family, but based on how things usually go, I’m already feeling anxious about it. Both of our families have their issues, but mine seems to escalate into not only frustration and annoyance with my family members, but with my wife as well. She never seems to understand what’s going on and that the emotional space I retreat to has very little to do with her and all to do with my family, especially my mom.
Lori and Jeff: Holidays with family can feel overwhelming in part because stress levels are affected by the energy of those around us. If multiple members of the family are anxious, nervous or stressed, our own nervous system can unconsciously be triggered to enter into fight or flight mode. Fight or flight (and sometimes freeze) is experienced on a spectrum. Even if there’s no obvious threat that we’re protecting ourselves from, we may still feel uneasy if the environment and those around us aren’t calm. Furthermore, sources of stress exist on two levels: what we call above and below the line. Above the line are logistical details such as dealing with hasty schedules, cleaning, getting the kids together and preparing food. Below the line are the emotional experiences, pressures and stories that many of us carry into family interactions.
Lori: One of the most prominent below the line dynamics in family gatherings is role regression. It’s common for families to unconsciously want members to remain in the role that was played as children. The family system understands how to operate when you’re embodying that younger version. If, as a child, you were deemed the people pleaser, mischief-maker, wallflower, or scapegoat, being around family can subtly put pressure on you to resume those characteristics. If you’ve spent the last 20 or 30 years evolving into a multidimensional adult, you may feel internal conflict over whether it’s easier to play the old role for a few hours or days than it is to carve space in the family dynamic for the full, authentic, adult you to exist.
Asserting yourself as a whole person becomes even more difficult when doing so challenges the roles that others want to cling to. For example, being wise, competent and successful can seemingly and unintentionally negate a mother’s role of provider and guide. If a mother relies heavily on that position for her sense of self, purpose or esteem, she may be resistant to letting it go. As a result, some part of her has to keep you in child mode to stay anchored in her own narrow identity.
Jeff: The most important part of navigating a trip home is to find a healthy balance in accepting aspects of your old family role while staying true to the most significant elements of your authentic self, including your values, beliefs and perspectives — even if they are in contrast to what the family system expects from you. It all starts with developing awareness around what your family role was and understanding why it was a necessary part of maintaining the status quo, both in its functional and dysfunctional aspects. It is important to share this with your wife so she understands the historical patterns as well. Next, be clear that these past characteristics and behaviors no longer define you. When I think about the role I played in my family system, I can look back and accept that it was a part of my past and try to glean whatever lesson I can from the experience. I call this version of me my “thanksgiving self,” and I recognize it as part of who I used to be and not who I am today. I also know that every time I return home, some version of my thanksgiving self will emerge and try to steer the ship.
Before you travel, prepare yourself (and your wife) as to what turbulent waters may lay ahead and be honest about what is most likely going to happen. The dynamic probably won’t be any different this time unless something significant has changed within the family system. It may sound strange to hear this, but try to have some fun with it. Imagine that you are in a kind of theatrical production of reality and that it has little bearing on your life outside of the immediate situation. When you find yourself slipping back into parts of your thanksgiving self, try to appreciate the wisdom and strength that has held your family together, even though some of that glue may, at times, seem dysfunctional.
Lori and Jeff: Holidays are ideally times of supportive connection, joy and love but they can also be rife with tension and discord. If you find yourself becoming irritated or overwhelmed, carve out small chunks of time to acknowledge your feelings and ground into your own energy. A few long, deep breaths can work wonders for centering the nervous system. Keep your wife in the loop by initiating check-ins with her where you can both communicate your vulnerabilities and needs. And perhaps most importantly, remember that as challenging as family members can be, they’re most likely trying to love the best way they know how.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Visit http://www.aspenrelationshipcoaching.com/blog-1 for all previous She Said, He Said columns.