December 5, 2012

How to Salvage Your Family Holiday Gathering.

At the holidays, many people look for tips on how to overcome various miseries, often having to do with family.

Much as I would love to, I don’t have “Eight Simple Ways to Have the Best Holidays Ever,” or some such.

The truth is, our families trigger our biggest stuff in ways almost no one else can, and while my work does address those triggers in profound ways, I can’t help you unlearn them before Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Festivus.

But I still have a way to help you! What is possible is for you to gain more understanding and compassion for yourself and for those around you through the next few weeks. You just need to remember to ask yourself this question when you are in a frustrating or painful situation:

“What am I afraid of and/or what are they afraid of?”

It might seem like the answers could get pretty complicated, but actually, our negative stuff falls into a few general categories that simplify things. Here are the main fears we have about our ability to express ourselves in the world:

I don’t matter to others. 

I can’t fit with others exactly as I am. 

No matter what I do, I can’t win others’ approval.

As hard as I try, I will never be perfect or good enough.

As hard as I try, I can never achieve what matters to me.

These fears create the necessity for ways to cope with or control them. Early in life, our brains come up with a survival mechanism that becomes our knee-jerk reaction when our fears are triggered intensely. These coping mechanisms also fall into some basic categories:

To survive, I need things around me to be what I define as the “right” way. People with this pattern tend to see things in black and white, and they often vehemently reject anything or anyone that isn’t the “right” way for them.

There is an ideal way things should be and I have to work hard to make sure that my “pretty picture” is maintained. People with this pattern often say “everything is great” and we often look at them and think their lives are perfect. But, it takes hard work to maintain their ideal and if flaws are pointed out, they tend to feel threatened and react negatively.

Everyone need to do things “my way” and I survive by telling everyone how to do things. This person is the know-it-all and when triggered, tends to just take over. They usually feel incapable of succeeding in personal relationships, so focusing on tasks and telling others how to do things is their only comfort zone.

I need everyone around me to be happy and taken care of. This is the people-pleaser. They often guess at what they think will make those around them happy and try their best to provide it, often while neglecting themselves. It’s not unusual for this person to feel invisible, unloved, or used at the end of a family gathering.

Nothing ever works for me, and I’ll say anything to prove it. This is the person who first tells you everything that’s going wrong for them and then, if you try to point out something that is good in their lives, they’ll give you 20 reasons why it’s not. Or, they’ll respond to your news with how their life is worse or they could never have such a good life as you do.

To prove that the future will be better, I need a crisis happening now. This person might seem just like the one above, but they’re always trying to overcome what’s going wrong for them. Because they rely on crisis to survive, you might even see them blowing something out of proportion.

You might spend some time thinking about the people you’ll be getting together with at the holidays now.

Which of the fears above tend to get triggered for you when you’re around them? And, can you recognize your survival mechanism from the second list? Did you realize that all of this is just based on the fear that something is wrong with you being just the way you are?

Now, spend some time thinking about each of those people, again. See if you can recognize the fears that they tend to have triggered and what their survival mechanisms are. Can you see how they—all of them, even your know-it-all uncle or “perfect” sister—are just afraid that something is wrong with them being just the way they are? Seeing behind my own mask or others’ masks in this way always helps me in situations that feel uncomfortable, intimidating, or just plain annoying.


If I could wave my magic wand over you and your family members, I would reveal to you the beautiful uniqueness each of you has to share. You might spend a few more minutes thinking about what uniqueness you could share in the next few weeks. You might then imagine that the holidays have passed, and you really did get to share that uniqueness with others. And, that it felt great to do that. And, that everyone around you said how happy they were that you were in their lives. And, that you came to appreciate your family members in new ways, also. And then, you might imagine (and I know you’re going to laugh at me, but just try it) that you had a great time and can’t wait for the next family gathering.

I hope that if you’re dreading the holidays, that you’ll keep this all in mind and give it a try. Be sure to comment below after the holidays have passed and let me know how it went!

Ed: Lynn Hasselberger

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