This week marks Passover and Easter, plus it’s Spring Break for many. Ultimately, this means people are anticipating or planning some family gatherings and/or trips “back home,” which can be both exciting and stressful. Even before our family arrives or we get to our destinations, the anxiety often takes on a life of its own in our minds:
Will Uncle Ted get drunk again and talk about his “glory days” in front of my kids? Will Aunt Josie comment about my weight? Will Grandma try to feed my toddler her famous peanut brittle because, as she says, “A little peanut brittle never hurt anybody,” even though I keep telling her he’s allergic? Will my dad tell that really-not-funny story about my first period? Again?
Or will everyone behave but just drive me up the wall with five well-intentioned questions a minute for four days straight that are really innocent but somehow make me feel inadequate or somehow like I’m impersonating an adult having them all in my house? “Where’s your mop? I just want to clean this little area of the kitchen.” “Do you have a rag, honey? There are dust bunnies under this server.” “I’m emptying the dishwasher. Where does this platter go?” “The trash is full; should I take it to the garage or the outside trash?” “Did you want to leave these dishes in the sink for some reason, or should I clean them?”
The more we think about the gathering ahead, the more we recall past family gatherings, and the more room there is for us to experience anxiety that the worst moments we’ve shared with our families will be repeated. Of course, telling ourselves not to think about these things is an exercise in futility. So, the question becomes: How can we dictate our internal narratives so that our anticipatory thoughts become affirming and reassuring rather than negative and potentially self-perpetuating? Well, there are a two main components to consider with this one.
1. Establish reasonable expectations: Family life is messy. We often have this overly idealized mental image of family life. It’s sometimes a Norman Rockwell representation of the whole family, rosy-cheeked from an evening walk, sitting around the fire, chatting happily about this, that, and the other. Here’s the thing. Norman Rockwell wouldn’t have painted a real family. In real families, those post-walk fireside chats are interrupted by feverish toddlers who never have enough water or trips to the potty, fits of teenage angst at being asked to put down the phone or help with the dishes, tipsy grandmas who spill cocoa that is absolutely not spiked, and vomiting dogs who got into the holiday chocolate. Who wants a painting of that?
The truth is, there’s a little dysfunction in every family. There’s a little I-haven’t-liked her-since-I-was-nine-and-that’s-not-changing at every table. There’s some burnt turkey, broken china, spilled wine, sick dogs, messy kitchen, no-you-don’t-need-to-clean-under-my-credenza,-Grandma in every single household. So how do we deal with that?
First, we must be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that there is no “perfect” family gathering and that we cannot control others’ behaviors, only our own. We have to smile and keep in mind that the worst-case scenario is that the turkey is burned beyond recognition and this becomes the fun year we all had pizza for Easter. If everyone is together and pretty happy, that’s really the point. Families don’t get together to evaluate one member’s ability to replicate something that Martha Stewart needs a 45-person staff to create. We gather to stay connected, enjoy one another’s company, mark the passing of seasons, maintain the rituals, and pass on the stories that make us who we are as a family. Whether the gravy has lumps or the toddler threw up is not important; how we respond to those bumps in the road – not letting them derail us from focusing on what matters – is what is truly important. And to do that, we need to set reasonable expectations for ourselves and the events as a whole.
2. Be who you are: These people have likely seen you at your best, your worst, and pretty much every state in between. Plus, older relatives may remember you from before YOU remember yourself. And some of them haven’t been around you on a regular basis since you were a kid. This means that they perceive you as you were, not as you are, and that is a difficult dynamic to overcome.
People treat us as they see us, and if they see us as kids or teenagers, we may react defensively to not being treated as the adults we are. Even if we don’t feel defensive about this treatment, sometimes, when people treat us the same way they did way back then, we simply revert to old patterns and respond as we would have, not as we usually do. In other words, you may never raise your voice, ever, but one off-hand comment from one of your parents in front of your kids may have you flying off the handle because even though you’re grown and accomplished and happy, when Dad says something about how you cook the turkey, you’re suddenly a defensive 14-year-old who can never, ever do anything right or well enough or to Dad’s impossible standards.
Being perceived and treated (and responding) as we were, not as we are, perpetuates the living-in-the-past dynamic, which not only prevents our loved ones from truly getting to know us as we are today, but it also creates a scenario in which we feel misunderstood, disrespected, or not valued for our current, true selves. It’s that, “She still treats me like a kid!” exasperation, followed by the realization that we said that while stomping our feet.
Overcoming this isn’t easy. To do it, we have to actively seek to assert ourselves as we are today and not let ourselves fall into those old identities and old roles. Maybe you were the “wild child” or “the shy one.” Maybe you were the family peacekeeper or the black sheep. Maybe you were a little of all of these things at different points in your life. The important thing is to see yourself as you are now and let your actions demonstrate that, while these identities are all parts of your past, they do not define your present.
Ultimately, if we are able to establish reasonable expectations and be true to our current, authentic selves, we are then in a better frame of mind to process the ensuing family chaos and even, if we’re lucky, embrace it a little. If we coach ourselves through positive visualizations – see yourself calmly reminding Uncle Joe that Sally is your wife, not your roommate; picture yourself hearing what’s being said instead of reading into subtext that’s truly just old, negative, self-talk from the past; imagine yourself enjoying this time and being fully present with your family rather than brooding about whether things will be just so – then we are able to change our internal narratives and, ultimately, bring our visualizations to fruition and have the best chance of the calm, happy, enjoyable experience that is truly what most everyone wants out of their family holidays.
And you know, if you can do all of that and it’s still a bust…remember that it’s only temporary. As we often say around here at Sanctuary: we can do hard things. All of us.
Tara Cohen is the Business & Marketing Director for Sanctuary Counseling. She wrote this piece after a long discussion about these issues with Sanctuary’s founder, Heather Kramer Almquist, MA, CT, NCP, Psychotherapist. They collaborated in its planning and refined it together. Tara enjoys marketing for Sanctuary and writing about a wide range of topics, and yes, when she writes about puking toddlers and mop-happy relatives, she knows whereof she speaks.