I have a patient, Ben, who used to dread heading home for the holidays. Due to the constant criticism from his parents, he and his family found it extremely difficult to relax and enjoy themselves. As soon as Ben walked through the door of his parents’ home, he felt ill and his stomach turned. He returned to that shrunken state he used to feel as a child.

Ben told me, “I walk in the house and wait to be bombarded: Why don’t you have more children? Why aren’t you making more money? Why don’t you have a better position? Why aren’t you more traditional? Why did you marry a white girl, etc. With each jab, I feel smaller and smaller, like I am literally shrinking… no, disappearing.”

The harsh reality is that Ben isn’t the only one who feels hurt by his family. Many people feel tense or disheartened after spending time with family. When your emotions are triggered by interacting with family members, your brain sends you back in time to how you felt as a child. I work a lot with my patients to try their best to not be triggered. But that’s not easy when it comes to dealing with your family. Our brains and bodies hold on to our childhood wounds.

Insults trigger a slew of emotional and physiological transformations such as anger, shame, sadness, back pain, or changes in the gut (the same way Ben felt with his knotted stomach). When we experience these transformations within ourselves, it can take a toll on our self-esteem and confidence. If this is prolonged, we can eventually feel as if we are “not enough”.

When Ben was younger, he’d bury his feelings, and this resulted in the low-level depression he experienced for years. There are things we can learn and practice to help us cope with the harsh dynamics of our families. Each small change we can make within ourselves allows us to better support our happiness and confidence. 

Working Towards Acceptance

I sat down with Ben to help him see that his parents didn’t have it in them to show him the love and acceptance he wanted and deserved—both now and when he was a child. “Why go back to an empty well expecting there to be water?” I asked. Ben’s wish to have unconditional love from his family is natural. Ben hoping his parents would change wasn’t helping him. Accepting the truth is a very freeing act. For Ben to move forward, he needed to come to terms with the fact that his parents might never respect his choices. When you accept what is true, you have the ability to validate our sadness and anger. From there, we rebuild our self-esteem.

It’s important for Ben to understand who his parents truly are. Ben’s parents are immigrants and they knew poverty. They wanted him to be wealthy, so they felt secure. His parents pushed him because they wanted the best for him. What they didn’t realize, is that they were hurting their son and deflating his confidence. 

It can be challenging, but we have to see our family members for who they are, and that includes their limits and weaknesses. When we allow ourselves to do so, we allow ourselves to deeply know and feel: I am not wrong for being different than my parents and I don’t deserve to feel guilty or ashamed. 

Leading up to the holiday season this year, Ben worked hard to prepare for the reunion with his family in hopes that it wouldn’t be as painful as the years past. Accepting the harsh reality of his past allowed Ben to mourn for the child inside whose love and acceptance were neglected. As he allowed himself to feel angry at his parents, he lessened the self-hatred and accepted himself as well as his parents. For some people, this method can be counterintuitive; for others, it allows us to process our past emotions and have better relationships moving forward. 

Make the Decisions That Are Best For You

Going into the holidays, think about what will make you feel a little stronger and a little more confident. Every little change makes a difference. Take these tips and work on applying them to your own personal situation!

  • Know thy self! Before going, think about how your mood is typically affected. Conscious awareness helps. By doing this, you’ll be able to say, “Here it is.” You will know that your emotions are being set off. A little bit of awareness and self-reflection helps.
  • Try to stay big in your full adult confident self, while in your family’s presence. See your parents through your adult eyes, the way you would see a co-worker or friend.
  • Validate your emotions. Work the Change Triangle, a tool to help you move through your emotions and into a calmer, more openhearted state of being; burying emotions isn’t good for your health and wellbeing. Say to yourself in the midst of an emotion, “I feel sad,” or, “I feel angry!” or, “That comment made me feel ashamed.” Whatever you feel, try to name it and validate it.
  • Don’t fight but do stand up for yourself. You don’t have to lash out but you can gently point out, “Hey, that sounds a little (or very) harsh or humiliating.”
  • Stand up for your spouse and children if they are criticized or treated meanly. Say something like, “We want to be here and have a nice time. If you can’t be nice, we’ll have to go.”
  • When family is toxic to your health and wellbeing, i.e. violent or abusive, give yourself permission to NOT spend the holidays with your family until they get help. 

The reality is we don’t get to pick our families. It can result in personalities not blending well, and relationships not becoming what we want of them. It is important to note, though, that you do have options: you can respectfully decline the invitation; if you decide to accept the invitation be sure to set clear boundaries and don’t budge; implement self-help strategies to help yourself get through; and/or seek a therapist for help before you go. Maybe holidays spent with friends who feel like family are a better option. Most importantly, validate your feelings.

(Patient details have been changed to protect confidentiality.)

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