My patient, Han, used to dread going home for the holidays. He found it hard to relax and be himself. His wife and children also dreaded the holidays because Han's parents made hurtful remarks, criticizing everything from their outfits to their opinions. The minute Han walked through the door of his childhood home, his stomach knotted up. He felt himself recede into a diminished state where he felt like a child.
Han told me, “I walk in the house and wait to be bombarded: Why don’t you have more children? Why aren’t you making more money? Why don’t you have a better position? Why aren’t you more traditional? Why did you marry a white girl, etc. With each jab, I feel smaller and smaller, like I am literally shrinking…no, disappearing.”
Unfortunately, feeling diminished, tense or hurt by family is not unusual. Emotions triggered by family interactions have great power to automatically send us back in time to how we felt as children—it’s how the brain works. My patients work hard not to get triggered. But resisting the pull to a small or tense state is very hard when it comes to family. The brain and the body remember very well our childhood wounds.
Insults and criticisms trigger a variety of emotional and physiological changes like anger, shame, sadness, back pain, or changes in the gut like Han’s knotted stomach. These physical and emotional changes in turn affect our self-image and confidence. We might develop the sense that somehow we are "not enough."
Han had few tools to cope with the emotions his family brought up. He mostly buried and avoided his feelings, which led to the low-level depression he had for decades. However, there are many things we can learn and practice to better cope with our difficult family relationships. We can make small changes that support our wellbeing and confidence.
Working Towards Acceptance I helped Han accept that his parents didn’t have the capacity to give him the love and acceptance he needed, now and when he was younger. “Why go back to an empty well expecting there to be water?” I asked. Han’s wish for his family to see him and love him unconditionally was healthy and natural. But he harbored a fantasy that his parents would change, which wasn’t serving him. In my experience, it helps to accept what is true. Han had to swallow that his parents might never fully see him or respect his choices. By accepting what is true, we can validate our sadness and anger. We rebuild our self-esteem from there.
I also helped Han to understand his parents for who they were. As immigrants, his parents knew poverty. They needed him to be wealthy, so they felt secure. His parents humiliated him for not being more successful in order to motivate him. They didn’t realize they were hurting him and undermining his confidence.
As hard as it is, we have to see our parents for who they are, with their limits and weaknesses. Seeing our parents for who they are helps us deeply know and feel: I am not bad for being different from my parents and I don’t deserve to feel guilty or ashamed.
This year, Han worked hard to prepare for the holidays with his family so it wouldn’t be as painful. Accepting reality came with mourning for the child inside who's emotional needs were largely neglected. The more he allowed himself to experience anger towards his parents for the mistakes they made (without judging himself for his emotions); and the more he felt sadness for the losses he endured; the more he accepted his parents and himself. Although it is counterintuitive for many people, acknowledging and processing emotions from the past often makes present-day relationships better or at least more tolerable. We are better able to hang on to our adult Self and less emotionally reactive (triggered).
Doing What’s Best For You
Give some thought to what might make you leave the holidays feeling a little stronger and more confident—little changes can make a difference. Here are a few words of advice knowing we all have unique family circumstances.
• Know thy self! Before going, think about how your mood is typically affected. The conscious awareness helps. By doing this, you’ll be able to say, “Here it is.” You will know that your emotions are being set off. A little bit of awareness and self-reflection helps. • Before entering, try a grounding and breathing exercise to center and calm yourself. • Try to stay big - in your full adult confident Self - while in your family’s presence. See your parents through your adult eyes, the way you would see a co-worker or friend. • Validate your emotions. Work the Change Triangle, a tool to help you move through your emotions and into a calmer, more openhearted state of being; burying emotions isn’t good for your health and wellbeing. Say to yourself in the midst of an emotion, "I feel sad" or "I feel angry!" or "That comment made me feel ashamed." Whatever you feel, try to name it and validate it. • Don’t fight, but, do stand up for yourself. You don’t have to lash out but you can gently point out, “Hey, that sounds a little (or very) harsh or humiliating.” • Stand-up for your spouse and children if they are criticized or treated meanly. Say something like, “We want to be here and have a nice time. If you can’t be nice, we’ll have to go.” • When family is toxic to your health and wellbeing, i.e. violent or abusive, give yourself permission to NOT spend the holidays with your family until they get help.
We don’t get to pick our families. And, sometimes relationships are just not what we want. Remember you have options: you can decline an invitation, accept an invitation but set firm boundaries, implement self-help strategies to better survive, and/or see a therapist to prepare. You also can create a different kind of holiday with friends instead of family and see how that feels. Most of all, remember to validate your feelings. It’s natural to feel sad during the holidays, especially if your family relationships disappoint you.
(Patient details have been changed to protect confidentiality.)