A Guide to the Holidays for Imperfect Families
Wanda Sevey, MDiv, LMFT is a staff therapist and office director at Council’s Voorhees and Lawrenceville, New Jersey offices. She also teaches in the Post Graduate Program and is the Director of Clergy Training.
It’s okay to admit that your family is not perfect. Even I have had my moments of dreading family gatherings. I know, however, as a couple and family therapist, you can run but you cannot hide from the influence your family of origin has on you. Your family has been your life-long incubator for your growth and development, creating and shaping you into the person you’ve become. Your experience growing up impacts the way you communicate, how you express closeness, your fears and hopes for relationships and your self-concept. All of this influence of your family doesn’t mean thought that as an adult, you don’t have a unique sense of self and identity.
One of the challenges of going home for the holidays is that no matter how responsible and successful we are in our adult lives it’s easy to fall back into patterns of communicating that we thought we’d outgrown. The successful mechanical engineer goes home and realizes that everyone still sees her as the baby of the family. The school principal and dad goes home and realizes that his family still expects him to act like the rebellious teen he once was.
The key is being able to stay connected to your family and, in spite of their expectations, hold onto your adult identity. It’s the challenge that takes a lifetime. Some days we’re better at it than others. One of my colleagues once said that there’s not a one of us who can be with our families more than half an hour without falling back into childhood roles and patterns with our parents, siblings and extended family. You can bet other members of your family have similar feelings. If you were the older bossy sister, like I was, you can imagine how my younger siblings feel when I try to take charge now. Since hanging onto your identity with your family, and learning to relate to one another as the adults is a long term process, I’d like to offer you a few actions steps you can use during upcoming holiday gatherings.
Separate your thinking about your family members from their behavior as much as you can.
Your brother-in-law who makes outrageously provocative political comments is also the uncle to your child who loves his sense of humor and attentive playfulness. Also, understand that his impulse to be provocative is rooted somewhere within. Does he want to push others away? Is he feeling insecure and then lashing out? Is he acting out his own unresolved family issues leftover from his own childhood? You really don’t know where it’s coming from but knowing that we are all works in progress can help us see the whole person, not just the parts we don’t like.
Stay out of the middle.
When two people are having communication problems or feeling tension in their relationship they will often try to pull a third person into the middle of it. Your best bet is stay out of it instead of creating a triangle. When your sister starts to complain about your brother’s wife just say something like “That sounds very difficult. Have you tried talking to her about it?” You may have to repeat this several times.
Remember that you don’t have to agree with someone to understand their point of view.
You may not think that your parents have ‘favorite’ grandchildren but try to understand why your sister in law has that perspective. Trying to see it through her eyes doesn’t solve the problem but it can help soothe her injured feelings about it. When she feels better go back to step 2 and ask her what she would like to do to improve the situation.
Cultivate humility within yourself.
Making the realization that family members find us as challenging as we find them and recognizing that we have our own growing edges can be the beginning of self-compassion and compassion for others. View yourself and others with loving kindness.
The really good news is that your family is a system of relationships and when you make a change the whole system of relationships feels the difference. When you change your perception of these family gatherings, you can change your reality.
Wanda Sevey, MDiv, LMFT is a staff therapist and office director at Council’s Voorhees and Lawrenceville, New Jersey offices. She also teaches in the Post Graduate Program and is the Director of Clergy Training. To request an appointment with Wanda, click here or call Client Care at 215-382-6680 extension 1.