Painful family dynamics reemerge during the holidays: Reflect on them rather than just enact them
Every year around the holiday season, patients shrug and say to me, “My family is crazy,” or, another variation, “My family is weird,” before setting out to simply endure the holidays. Of course, those little words—“crazy” and “weird”—can stand in for a whole lot of harm. Crazy sometimes indicates anger, disorganization, or unrealistic expectations. Weird might mean unconnected, odd, dismissive, aloof, or in denial. Ultimately, what patients are conveying is that something painful and unhealthy is happening in the family that is often not being acknowledged in general and is certainly not being dealt with over the holidays.
No matter how difficult, stressful, or enraging, it can feel easier to just try to get through the family’s craziness for the holidays and then, return to the life we built rather than attempt something new for the holidays. It’s a shitty deal, but it’s one that we’re used to. However, this can recreate the harm that is so familiar from growing up. Reflecting on family dynamics rather than simply enacting them or allowing them to play out in old patterns can give us choices in how we do the holidays.
We always do it this way!: Families feel like unmovable systems, particularly with holiday traditions
Families can relate to themselves as an unmovable system. They can insist that the system be and look how it was in the past rather than evolve with present circumstances or changing realities. In particular, old cultural and family values during the holiday season can feel unchangeable even if they’re no longer beneficial.
For example, family members can insist that everyone do the same thing every year during the holidays even though it always ends in unhappiness and conflict. In this way, traditions and expectations around the holidays can be a way to protect—and maintain—crazy family dynamics. With these entrenched traditions, these dynamics become normalized (For example: Every year, we go to Grandma’s house and every year, there is a fight). It’s almost as if the holiday itself is set up to protect the family from looking at itself.
The holidays can also be a time of denial for families
The holidays especially can be a time when families hope for a moment of joy and togetherness when they can be an idealized version of a family that either once was or never was but they dreamed it could be. Even if a family was never that healthy, there can be a wish for a strong, healthy family—so much so that family members deny reality.
For instance, if you try to point out something hurtful, a family member might say, “We can’t talk about this now. It would make your dad uncomfortable. I don’t want to ruin the holiday.” This often is the end of the conversation. Understandably, it can feel scary to be the one to mess with, question, or shake up the family dynamic, however painful, particularly with the pressures of the holidays.
Acknowledging these family dynamics and grieving what isn’t working are the first steps toward changing the holidays
If you feel the holiday visits with family are disruptive, sit with and notice these interactions and what they bring up in you and in your relationship with the person you love or grew up with. When you note what feels crazy or weird (in the myriad ways these words can mean), you are one step closer to asking yourself: Where do I want to locate myself in this dynamic? What is my responsibility in this? What is my choice? Looking at the crazy can be tough, but it’s also freeing—you’ll eventually come to a place of choosing to do the holidays differently or changing how you approach attending a holiday event or outing.
Alongside this, we also have to grieve that something in our family was lost, never was there, or is not working. This can be a difficult process. When there is a realization that something is just not working in a family, you have to grieve that what once was needs to shift. Sometimes this can be grieving something as simple as gift-giving. Families can end gift-giving as it gets too expensive, too competitive, or is mired in weird dynamics. Even after deciding it’s best to take that away, it can feel like a structure is gone. Family members can hold onto these past traditions, don’t know what to do without them, or feel like everything is lost now that a tradition has changed.
Reclaim the holidays: You can structure family visits around your own care
Above all, it’s important to remember that we can decide what is safe for us when we visit family during the holidays. We can decide who we stay with, when we go, who we go with, what we bring or do not bring, and how we get there. For instance, you may find it’s better to stay in a hotel rather than stay at a family member’s house where you always used to stay. This way, you can get some distance and make your own choices about when to leave an event. There are also ways to structure activities around your own care such as taking a walk or a drive, spending time with those in the family who you choose to build more with, taking some alone time, and even taking some topics of discussion off the table in advance of get-togethers. And when a family cannot live with these needs of protection, you can decide short- or long-term not to go to holiday events and instead, make your own holiday tradition.
Granted, recreating how you do a holiday can mean making a series of difficult decisions. Therapy can help unpack family dynamics and your own internal processing in an environment that is specifically away from family holiday pressures and with a person (the therapist) who doesn’t have a stake in long-held holiday traditions. In therapy, you can reflect on these family relationships, both past and present versions, in a way that helps you take on developing holidays that feel like your own.