In an ideal world, family gatherings during the holidays would look and feel like they are portrayed on commercials: warm, cozy, picturesque, and joyous. Don’t we all want to experience the magic of a perfect Norman Rockwell holiday? Such an image of family togetherness is etched into our social consciousness.
But for some of us, this goal — to achieve the perfect holiday moment — can be tainted by our own realities. Not that reality has to be a bad thing; it’s just often more flawed than the airbrushed image we’ve come to expect of ourselves and those we love during this time of year.
Even among the best of families, conflict can make itself an unwanted guest at the holiday table. Sigmund Freud referred to this phenomenon as the “narcissism of the small difference.” It’s those slight differences among people who are otherwise alike that can create feelings of hostility. Freud even used this theory to explain the genesis behind some civil wars, so I think it’s safe to use it in this context as well.
Other theorists believe that when we view our family in a poor light, doing so triggers a concern that they are somehow a negative reflection on us. Knowing you’re related to someone who thinks so differently than you do, especially when these differences take on a political or a prejudice bent, can sometimes feel like too much to tolerate.
Then there are the small annoyances that seem to accumulate. Joe Palca, the author of “Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us,” calls these “Social Allergens.”
According to Palca, repeated exposure to these “allergens” in a small space can create a cumulative affect, which in turn can cause or trigger major relationship problems. Oftentimes, sibling rivalry, which isn’t just for kids during the holidays, rears its ugly head. It’s no wonder returning home can feel like an emotional time warp, shifting us back into old behavioral patterns. Old baggage becomes new again when it gets reenacted, probably with the unconscious goal of settling the score and ultimately working things out.
Limited space, combined with the fact that people are eating more unhealthy foods, drinking more, exercising less, and probably not feeling as great about their bodies during this time of year, certainly doesn’t help, either.
The stress and tension of the holiday season can lead us to focus on all the differences we have within our family instead of remembering their strengths and all of their attributes and kindnesses for which we are grateful. There is also a tendency during the holidays to think about the people we’ve lost or who are no longer with us; these memories can leave a sad void of longing and sadness.
But one of the biggest culprits that can sabotage our holiday happiness is the unfair and unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves about how these events should look and feel. When families come together for these celebratory events, magic is not always created, at least in terms of how we like to think about the magical.
One of the best ways to protect yourself against holiday stress or minimize the souring of family relationships during this holiday time is to manage your expectations. In order to reduce feelings of disappointment and anger, make sure those expectations are realistic.
Find a way to appreciate the chaos of family gatherings … reframe these moments. They can make life interesting and even prove humorous in the retelling. Look at your family through the eyes of a novelist — doing so can be creatively enriching and help you view your more challenging family members as interesting characters to cast in your future novel, play, or latest blog.
Go into these gatherings with the right mindset. Embrace the holiday spirit by entering festive events thinking about the good times, focusing on the positive aspects of your family getting together, and seeing yourself as a positive force during these family moments. This simple mental shift can create a very rewarding and powerful self-fulling prophecy, which can lead to happy moments and closer family bonds.
Choose to stay above the conflict; there’s a lot to be said for becoming an observer. Make a deliberate commitment to yourself to rise above the fray. Don’t get seduced into an unpleasant or combative conversation.
Having said that, it never hurts to have a backup plan. Have a conversation with your partner about how you can support each other if things get a little tense or out of hand. Knowing you have a plan to protect yourself can go long way.
Families are always going to be perfectly imperfect. And the magic often happens in the valleys of these imperfections.
The real secret to enjoying the holiday season with your loved ones is to allow everyone to be who they are. Focus on those you enjoy being with and let the rest fade into the proverbial background. Remind yourself that everyone you know is probably experiencing more or less the same kind of glorious chaos you are; this thought can help to put this unique family time in its proper perspective.
You are not alone. We are all in this together, so go out there and enjoy the best holiday season ever.
Contributed by Dr. Robi Ludwig