“We all have tendencies to see people in the light of past experiences.” –Cloud and Townsend, Boundaries
When I smell the perfume my mom always wore when I was a kid, suddenly I’m back in the car on the way to buy breakfast burritos in the dead of winter in West Texas. I have the angst of junior high and the annoyance at my little sister’s jokes. I feel the confusion about what is allowed at my house, what I might get in trouble for. I remember my constant worry, “are my parents in a good mood or bad mood today?” In my family there were always eggshells on the floor for me to tiptoe around. I was very anxious as a child and held it all in. And when I unknowingly (or sometimes intentionally) crunched on one, anger and emotion erupted in my family. I feared that eruption.
Fast-forward 20ish years and we’re all sitting around the living room during Christmas break. But now we’re in a cabin we borrowed and there are nieces and nephews and husbands and grandma there too. Then I smell the perfume my mom wears, or I hear that cackle my dad makes or my daughter says something sassy, just the way my older sister did when she was young. And my mind pictures all the eggshells laid out. My chest gets tight and I start to feel anxious. The tension settles into my body, and I’m ignoring it because, “It’s silly, I’m 33 for God’s sake! I can have a holiday without all this family baggage coming up!” I’m convincing myself, “This holiday will be beautiful and perfect, and I’ll prove to everyone that I’m not an anxious person anymore.” And I’m trying to convince everyone else, “I’m different than I used to be and aren’t my girls sweet and kind and isn’t my husband flexible and accommodating?” The fantasy continues… “The crafts will get done, there will be wonder and magic. The meal will be low-stress AND gourmet and I’ll turn the tide of all the mistakes my parents ever made!”
Oh, little baby Jesus, help!
In a rational moment we can create some emotional distance from our families. We can let go of the past and forge a different path for our nuclear families. As you may be able to observe from my previous mental state, Christmas is NOT rational, it is emotional. And nostalgic. And nostalgia can be a double-edged sword. When you encounter something familiar your body pulls up all those old memories. Each time your senses takes in a whiff of a familiar scent, or flavor, it pulls up the record of that stored memory. This can trigger emotions that have laid dormant for the rest of the year. We ALL experience this reaction. Some of us keep it locked up inside, some of us release it like a fire hose of emotion on everyone around us, some of us have learned to process it and release it.
I don’t know that extended time with extended family will ever be uncomplicated. But I think we can find a stillness inside where past pain, memory, lack of closure, trauma, missed opportunity, fear, regret, grief, and anxiety are not in the driver’s seat.
If we can be reflective and slow down, we can embrace this season with our whole hearts and tend to the past in small doses. If those past emotions feel like they’re in the driver’s seat, the answer is not to kick them out of the car. We need to allow those memories to be heard and healed. So, for those of you who feel brave and have a quiet moment of reflection, here are some ways to acknowledge your emotions during the holidays without letting them run the show:
- In a safe, quiet place (so probably not in the laundry room while everyone is waiting for you to come back so they can open presents), try to identify those past unmet needs, grief, fear, or past pain that might be coming up for you during the holiday season.
- Remind yourself you are not that child anymore. You have more tools, more control, and more awareness now.
- You are not pre-destined to repeat your family’s patterns- but you can choose to carry your family’s legacy and values into your own family.
- Reflect on what your own nuclear family needs and make space for those needs.
- Your extended family’s feelings, views, and expectations don’t have to be YOUR feelings, views, and expectations.
- Open up your hand to what the holiday can be now so you don’t get stuck in what it used to be or what you imagined it would be. Stay flexible.
- Give yourself grace. Your body is pulling up a lot of stored memory. And it’s ok to have an emotional reaction. And remember- your siblings and your parents are probably having an emotional reaction to the experience too.
As we show ourselves grace and allow time for reflection, we can show grace to our partners and kids. And out of that grace and stillness, we can embrace our families for what they are and be fully present in this beautiful season. Merry Christmas!