When you think about being with your family for the holidays do you sing quietly to yourself (to the tune of Silver Bells), “Family hell, family hell. It’s Christmas time in the suburbs?”
Then have no fear because we have a few tools to help you through the next few weeks of tinsel, turkeys and tension.
We hear about people’s families and the holiday “joy”…often. And we’ve narrowed them down to five main profiles:
1. The single person going home for the holidays and having to report on your dating life. This comes with the third degree about, well, every aspect of your dating life. And God forbid if you have a new-ish relationship and you are forced into the quandary of “Shall I bring them home with me to enter into the rabbit hole, or…”
2. The family (significant other and kids) where you end up feeling like you’re six years old again, and your SO is left wondering who the heck they ended up with.
3. And then there are the issues with the in-laws. Your spouse never feels like part of the family and you feel as if you are constantly putting out fires where none should have ever appeared in the first place.
4. Blended families and the juggling of kids, exes, in-laws, and the list goes on.
5. Oh, and we can’t forget to mention siblings…holy, moly there are So. Many. Issues.
Yowza. Here’s a little comfort for that choked feeling that may have just crept up from your stomach to your throat: we’ve been there. And guess what? So have 99.9% of the U.S. population (not a real statistic, in case you wanted to jump out of that cozy chair you’re sitting in and Google it). I (Marla) read an article a couple of years ago that addressed the embarrassment that so many of us feel when we are asked about our relationships with our siblings, and we have n o t h i n g. And so we fake it, and say, “Oh, she’s doing great. She loves her new job.” And then we mumble a few more meaningless, and untrue, lines about them and slink away. AND we feel guilty that we aren’t like “everybody else” who seem to have fabulous relationships with their siblings. How sad that we feel obligated to good relationships when we simply feel crappy about what is real for us.
Let’s face it. The most amazing relationships are complicated even when things are going well, and of course, everyone has conflict now and again, so why would we expect our families of origin to be any different? And do we expect a little too much from our parents because, well, they’re the “adults” in this scenario? The truth is that parents (and in-laws) often have more influence than we tend to acknowledge in our relationships. Their words tend to “stick” in our memories and can create conflicts with our partners.
Like we mentioned above, we have all returned home as an adult and suddenly felt like a “little kid” in the face of the control or abandonment we feel with our parents. We call this arrested development (yes, just like the TV show—it is funny until it hurts).
S. Rufus of Psychology Today writes, “Some of us look grown-up but aren’t. We walk around with suits and briefcases and car keys and annuities. But inside, we are five. Ten. Twelve. Sixteen. We sit in boardrooms, travel the world, even write books. But we are kids, still playing dress-up, playing house. Our bodies matured but our minds did not. Now – playing catch-up, playing spy – we feel left out of the adult world, certain that our would-be peers are whispering behind our backs, or speaking in a code we do not know.”
And here you are feeling like you’re 6, and now add in the fact that your mother-in-law or father-in-law wants to give you parenting advice (or reprimands/disciplines your child without consulting with you first) and you want to scream at them that you live with their child and know that their method of parenting did not work out so well!
For me (Jami) I was unable to separate from my role as my parent’s co-dependent when I brought my wife and children home. This left Marla feeling excluded from the private little conversations my mom and I would constantly have. And when we went to Marla’s childhood home, I felt obligated to conform to the routine of formal events that used to last for the entire week. Are you kidding me?
Whatever circumstances you are in, there are four things to start doing right now to begin showing your family that you are an adult, and happily making your own life count!
Step One: Forgive them. What does this mean, really? First, it’s a choice way before it’s a feeling. Second, forgiveness releases your heart to be free to love more completely yourself and others. It does not let the person who hurt you off the hook. And it will actually give you the gift of good, healthy boundaries, which are absolutely necessary to pack into your luggage for this holiday journey. And let’s be real, who wants to carry around all that hurt anyway?
And you know what? These family members we’ve been holding on to unforgiveness towards really didn’t intend to hurt us (at least most of them didn’t). Just like you, they were caught up on the old merry-go-round patterns of behavior that they learned from their families of origin. Remember the phrase, “Hurt people hurt people.” It’s really as simple as that. And it’s incredible that forgiveness will inevitably lead you to a place of compassion for those who have hurt you. Crazy as this sounds right now, it’s a real outcome. Jami and I both know…been there, done that, and have the healed scars to prove it. You can jump off of this crazy-making merry-go-round of pain and hurt; just stop it…be cherished. When you do, guess what happens? Those little comments like, “You look pretty…too bad your butt’s big like your mom’s” or the hostile humor thrown at you like a dagger about your childhood nickname “Hippo” won’t hurt anymore, and you can laugh along with the offending party and consider empathetically how deeply they must be hurting to want to demean you.
The need to forgive generally falls into two categories. Perfect family/parents? Yes, your parents and siblings need your forgiveness, especially if you believe they are perfect. We find it is actually more difficult for those that believe Mom and Dad are perfect than those that have abuse issues, because if your parents were perfect, how are you ever going to measure up? (Marla) I thought my family was perfect. Really, I did. And then I discovered that we were really too enmeshed to see how dysfunctional we really were. My dad was emotionally distant, and my mom was so busy keeping the house perfect and having a meal on the table by 6 pm that I often felt lonely and isolated. To cover this, I strove for perfection in all areas of my life. What a burden. I have forgiven, and I have freedom. It’s a beautiful place to be!
And then there are the parents that have obvious dysfunction that has the very visible pink elephant that no one is willing to talk about. Forgiveness opens the space for your newer relationships to become integrated in a healthier way.
They don’t have to know you have chosen to forgive them, and really it is usually not a good idea to share it with them unless they are on their own journey and let you know it is ok to talk about the hurts. My parents are on this healing journey, and I am forever grateful. Does it make the holidays perfect? No, but definitely better.
Once you have chosen forgiveness, imagine what they would say if they could be able to tell you everything you ever wanted to hear from them. Write it down and read it back to yourself. This opens up the possibility of asking them for what you would like to receive from them and makes it clearer in your mind. You may have to repeat this step often, even if they are no longer with us. It is important not to move to step two until you have completed the forgiveness step. Step One actually opens up creativity that is not all available to us until we have made the choice to forgive, and forgiveness is almost always a choice before we feel like doing it.
Step Two: Talk with someone (your Significant Other can make great ally for the Holiday’s) about the things that are difficult for you when visiting your family or your partner’s family. Get very clear about the things you have forgiven, who is there and why you think it hurts. Start practicing standing up for yourself, your partner and your kids in a kind and respectful way. Some phrases you can practice are:
• “This is not okay with me.”
• “When this happens I feel hurt.”
• “What did you mean by that.”
Step Three: If you find yourself falling back into anger and frustration, take a time out. You can also go for a walk or play a game with the kids. It would also be wise to consistently do check-ins with your partner a couple of times a day to take the pulse on how you are feeling (you can email us for an outline for “Check-In,” or you can purchase our book HERE). Simply expressing feelings will take the sting and hurt out of the situation.
Step Four: Be ready to take action S L O W L Y. It took time to get where you are now, and it will take your family some time and consistency to change their view of you as a child.
Relax and enjoy your hard work of arriving at the holidays as an adult that can act like a kid if you want to. When you take steps to prepare your heart and soul, and those of your family, you are ready to step into the lion’s den, or the crazy house, or whatever chaos may await you under the Christmas tree. You’ve got this holiday thing in the bag. And now you can be singing joyfully along the way, “Silver Bells, Silver Bells. It’s Christmas time in the city.”