By Dr. Roger Gould
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year. . . .”
How many of us hear that song and couldn’t disagree more? The holiday season for some is a joyful, happy time, particularly if we’ve come from a perfect nuclear family. And since that includes about .0003% of the population, the majority of people have mixed feelings at best about the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
There are plenty of reasons to be stressed out: You have cookies to bake; despite your efforts, you will probably gain some weight; buying presents rouses feelings of financial inadequacy . . . and then there is the family get-together.
Essentially, the things you have and the things you lack are exaggerated. The annual holiday get-together provides the ideal conditions for flare-ups. The expectations we have of the holidays are almost always unrealistic, making disappointments inevitable. We often stay attached to the past, unwilling to accept that the hand of time has actually changed the people and the landscape of our lives. The holidays can be painfully the same every year because we do not allow the members of our families to be who they currently are; rather, we expect them to be who they’ve been.
There was a woman who was trussing a goose for Christmas. Her family had had goose for Christmas every year for as long as she could remember. She made certain to season it just as her mother had and bind the legs tightly to the body. Her mother walked in and said, “Why are you trussing that goose like that, darling?” The daughter was trying to please her mother and felt hurt and offended. “I am doing it just like you always have.” The mother replied, “I only tied it up so tight because our oven was so small.”
We don’t have to do things just as they’ve always been done. If we are to grow and mature we must allow for change in ourselves and the people we love.
I’d like to illustrate some of the situations that create tension in families. Perhaps you can identify yourself or your family in the descriptions below. This may help you to avoid your own negative reactions or at least to take comfort in the fact that these phenomena are common occurrences.
- The Pecking Order. In every family there is a pecking order in which someone is perceived to be more important or to deserve more respect, time or consideration than others. If the pecking order can be suspended for the duration of the holidays, this tension will be eliminated. Or if the pecking order is rigidly adhered to by all involved, that silent accommodation will also eliminate tension from this source. But if there is one assertive independent soul who doesn’t comply, the whole house of cards can come tumbling down. In the old-fashioned families it was usually the father who was at the head of the pecking order, but nowadays it can be anybody who either has more money, or more charm, or more outside prestige, or a bigger life, or more potential, etc. Although most families agree that common humanity at holiday time should be enough and mutual respect should reign, if the pecking order is important to at least one person in the group, that person’s discomfort or anger can be a toxic ingredient and an incendiary event may ensue.
- Envy and Jealousy. In every group there is going to be some differential: Some are better educated or more verbal or stronger or more handsome, or slimmer, or more beautiful, or have more accomplished children or a better marriage or better health or are younger or have more opportunities, etc. Feelings of envy and jealousy are real and can’t be completely eliminated. The question is, will they be handled maturely or become the source of meaningless arguments or snide remarks? If these immature responses occur, how will the family handle it? Will the members take sides or will they know how to ride it out and let it resolve itself naturally?
- Shifting Alliances. In every family there are shifting alliances as people grow older and free themselves from roles that they played in the family at an earlier date. For example, an older sibling may find her two younger sisters have seemed to have banded together against her, whereas they used to look up to her. She may be shocked to find out that she is thought of as domineering, while she thought of herself as nurturing and caring. It is normal for people’s roles within a family to change over time. In fact, it is healthy and sometimes necessary for these alliances to shift. But it can be difficult for certain members of the family to deal with. At each family gathering there are implicit questions. Who is the favorite this year? What is my role now? Will I finally get the acknowledgment I’ve been hoping for?
- Insufferable Narcissism. There is narcissism, and there is Narcissism. You may not use that particular word very often, but you will know narcissism when you feel it. The narcissist is someone who is on display, always moves to the center, refers every conversation back to himself or herself, puffs himself up endlessly, diminishing everybody else. Oftentimes you don’t quite know what’s happening until you find yourself feeling annoyed by being interrupted, or suddenly feeling inferior or unimportant for reasons you can’t quite explain. That will lead you to go either into combat mode or slink away. To the narcissist you are unimportant because he or she is the only one worth listening to.
- The Transfer of Power. As our parents get older, the leadership in the family often moves to adult children. When the transfer goes smoothly, people in the family may be aware of it but there is not necessarily any tension. But when either the parents or the adult children have trouble with that transition, tension can occur. Adult children may be too eager to take control, causing the parent to fight against prematurely being infantilized. The parent may not fight against the transfer of power but may feel a certain degree of sadness about it. Or sometimes, the parent needs the children to take on more responsibility but does not know how to ask for it.
- Vulnerable Self-Esteem. Some people feel insecure and vulnerable when they are in a family setting. They may easily misinterpret innocent remarks, have a need to defend themselves and more than likely be the center of a drama that will probably include both anger and tears. Family members with self-esteem issues need extra care but do not know how to ask for it. They are hoping that their relatives will treat them in a way that makes them feel worthy. But, unfortunately, self-worth cannot be created by the actions of another; it must be cultivated from within.
- Estrangement of a Family Member. When one family member is estranged, the family feels as if it has failed as a unit. The nuclear family is supposed to be one. The earliest bonds of young children to young parents come in the sense of safety that everyone is together under one roof and everybody is in the same boat, all for one and one for all. If a family member has been expelled for bad behavior or voluntarily decides to be an outsider, the family is no longer one. That fact can’t be disguised by the mask of celebration and tradition, and there will inevitably be a feeling that something is missing. It’s hard to accept the reality that families can’t keep all their members all the time. Although estrangement is difficult for all, the one who is on the outside may have to stay in that position for some time as his or her way of finding a pathway through life. In a few cases it is a sign of poor mental health, but in most cases it is the evolution of a person’s life that is taking place and not a failure of the family group.
Families must change and evolve. When they do, their members are forced to adapt to these changes. For some, adapting is a difficult process. We can’t always change the people in our families. We can hope to make some shifts through a combination of communication, boundary setting and acceptance. However, we can always alter our own perspective.
Every Hanukkah for years, Jamie and Mark would go to visit Mark’s mother. And every year, Mark’s mother would ask Jamie, “What did you do with your hair?” Jamie would shrug off the question but would feel bad and insecure about her hair for the rest of the evening. Last year, Jamie vowed that she would not let this happen again. When she walked into the house, sure enough Jamie’s mother-in-law said, “What did you do with your hair?” Jamie took a deep breath, paused, and asked, “Why do you ask?” Her mother-in-law responded, “Because it looks so lovely.” All along Jamie had been assuming that her mother-in-law was asking about her hair because there was something wrong with it. Last year was indeed different. Jamie didn’t feel bad about herself all night and the family had a nice dinner. This year Jamie is actually looking forward to seeing her mother-in-law for the holiday.
Perhaps if we change the way we look at our families, they may actually change the way they look. If we can do this, this holiday season may just offer something different than the usual stress to which we are accustomed.