Written by Francine Baffa, LICSW, BCBA-D
Edited by Joe DeNoon
For many of us, reuniting with loved ones during the holidays can feel like psychological time travel. We can become our younger selves. This emotional rewind, and resulting regressive behaviors, can be triggered by old memories and historic family dynamics. Fear not! There is good news. By understanding why this occurs, we can gain insight into our actions; this understanding then can combat any unpleasant feelings and/or behaviors that may arise.
We can create space for the peaceful coexistence of anxiety and joy. Holidays and family gatherings can bring us face-to-face with stress and anxious feelings. Defense mechanisms spring into action when we find ourselves in stressful situations.
There are strategies to help us function within this environment. We do not need to engage with the Ghost of Christmas Past and be led by our family woes. As with any challenge, it’s a process.
We can reflect how we view our family. One suggestion is to think of our family configurations like puzzles, where each member has a set role that keeps the unit functioning. Family therapists refer to this process as “equilibrium” which is the way that a family finds its emotional balance. If the family system is stressed, there’s a tendency to “snap back” like a rubber band into old behavioral patterns as we try to reestablish equilibrium.
Also, it is important to know what your “time boundary” is when spending time with family. Each of us has a limit, and we need to respect it to honor both ourselves and the reunion time. Not saying “yes” to every family request represents self-care.
Some other techniques that can be included in our “travel bag” as we embark on this journey home.
- Think through possibly stressful scenarios before heading home
- Develop a new playlist if certain holiday songs awaken old, uncomfortable memories
- Create your own self-care plan full of nurturing solutions. You might decide to step outside for a walk, do a deep breathing exercise, meditate or just look at the holiday as an opportunity to practice being Zen
- Define your own compassion mantras
- Establish clear boundaries with family members
Be empowered and know that how you spend your holidays is a choice. Your emotional health comes first. Remind yourself that you are in control of your decisions, and your job is to protect your well-being, whatever that means for you.