Family… a word that can either make you feel warm and squishy because you share love with each other or because you’ve pooped your pants since the thought of being with them terrifies you: “Ah man, not again.” Or perhaps, the word family doesn’t make you warm and squishy; it makes you hot and fiery: “I can’t stand them!” or it’s a reminder of all the things you don’t like about yourself: “It’s like looking into a mirror… man, I’m screwed up.” Thus, the challenge for many during the holiday season becomes: “Shoot, I have to see my family.” How does this happen? Why do so many people resent the holidays because it means they have to spend time with their family? A family is supposed to be a place that’s safe and supportive; a place of reminiscing of good times and experiencing new joys. So what’s going on? I grew up very close with my family, but this year I noticed that I could easily end up like many of the people I meet who dread having to see their families. Thus, I need to understand what could be going on in order to help prevent this from happening.
1. Like many people, I struggle with a subconscious enjoyment of complaining and looking for sympathy. This is a very unhealthy pursuit, but one with which many people struggle. Complaining and sympathy can be a way to bond with others, but if I develop a mindset of dread towards my family, this will inevitably lead to behaviors that will push them away, and ultimately perpetuate my dread.
2. People in our culture tend to be drawn to comfort and things that are easy. Reconnecting with people isn’t easy for most of us because it’s like meeting people for the first time except we have a few extra details from which to work. (me) “How are you?” (other) “Good. You?” (me) “Good… how’s the family?” (other) “Good. Work?” (me) “Good… Okay, well good talking to you.” When you meet people you need to establish a sense of safety and then hitting a topic that gets both of you interested can require wading through some awkwardness: “Nope, nope, nope, yes, I found a topic.” The benefit of pushing through the awkwardness is it can feel rewarding and you can learn something new. I’ve learned to enjoy overcoming this challenge with new people, but with family doing this is like exercise; I know I should do it, but I’d rather eat cake.
3. I was once told we get to choose our friends whereas we’re stuck with family, so it makes sense you’ll end up with some losers. Every family seems to have that one person or section of the family who annoys everyone else, but these people are great because it gives everyone else something to bond over: “Did you see what Carl did? He’s such a loser it’s amazing.” This isn’t necessarily the healthiest approach, but since having a loser around can be beneficial we should be thankful for them, which can be the first step to liking them.
The real problem isn’t that we choose our friends and not our family. The truth is most people suck at being a friend. We’ll be friends with others until a conflict surfaces and suddenly one or both sides disappears. It’s easier to walk away than to resolve issues, which is a problem with family because with them we don’t have this luxury. We can’t just walk away. We can’t just get divorced. We have to actually face our problems, but this is hard. Most conflicts in my family tend to be ignored. We don’t confront each other because it’s easier to hold onto them than to share them. Thus, divides start to happen, and seeing each other reminds us of past hurts and these fuel our ability to gather new hurts thereby furthering the divide.
4. A problem in families is we stop doing things together. For instance, in my family we just sit and eat now. I was once best friends with my brother. Growing up we did everything together. Now, we sit at a table and eat for an hour once or twice a week. We’re not doing anything to build our relationship. We don’t even talk directly to each other because it’s a family collective discussion, which is always different than a one on one. This is the same problem as a husband and wife who only watch TV together. I love watching shows with my girlfriend (Rules of Engagement makes me howl), but we’re not overcoming any challenges together. On the other hand, I run an ultimate Frisbee team. This year we’d play our games and then leave. Again it was limited because we’re doing something together, but we didn’t take the time to ask “So how are you?” or even “What’d you think of the game?” Connecting with people requires both doing things together and sharing about them.
5. The one unfortunate truth I’ve found is our family tends to bring out our worst qualities. This can be because we forget to use our social filter around them since we’re “stuck” with each other, or being around our family brings out old childhood behaviors and feelings. Families can also be a place of transference, which means, for example, if we don’t like our dad and our brother reminds us of him, we put our feelings of dad onto him. Our brother may not have done anything wrong, but we can end up hating him because we see our dad when we see him. This also means people can hate us because we remind them of someone they hate. Issues of transference can be tricky, and they tend to run most rampant in our families because we’re likely to have strong similarities to others in our family.
Conclusion: Upon reflecting on what I experienced this holiday and what I’ve written about, if I want to reconnect with my family I need to be ready to push myself to be friendlier with them, to do things together besides sit and eat, and ultimately, to forgive them for the hurts I harbor. Thus, my natural desire to seek comfort and to hide from conflict are going to be major hurdles for overcoming the divide I sense happening in my family, but if I want things to change it’s up to me to push forward. If you’re in a similar position… good luck, but knowing what needs to be done is a great way to start the new year.