Estrangement from family members is so common that Wikipedia lists a definition for it. It only takes one unhappy person to cause estrangement in a family. Estrangement often hurts because we know, from Norman Rockwell paintings, that family is “supposed to” be supportive, they are “supposed to” love unconditionally, they are “supposed to” be there for us when no one else is around. When you look around and don’t see your family members standing close by ready with the hug and the kind words, you may wonder “What’s wrong with my family?” Relationships in general are inherently difficult, because communication, feelings, experiences and the like are all much more challenging than people like to admit. And relationships in a family just up the ante. Assumptions are made, history and experiences create a backlog of feelings, and people can tend to take one another for granted.
The holiday season, a time of supposed joy and connection, only exacerbates the issue with broken or struggling relationships. The “supposed to be’s” increase exponentially, and the bad feelings along with them. Everyone knows that families aren’t perfect, but Facebook tells us otherwise. Pictures posted to your page of people sitting around the dinner table passing the feast may remind you that everyone else has a nice time, while your family sits broken and unhappy.
This year doesn’t have to be the same, though. History doesn’t have to repeat itself. In fact, if you know you are headed for trouble come November and December, start making plans in October to have a different family experience. Prepare now so that you can look forward to the holidays with happy anticipation instead of fear and dread.
- Work on yourself. Yes, that’s right – find ways to get centered and become more secure in your own skin. Practice meditation. Learn self-hypnosis. Learn about positive self-talk. Take steps so that you are not beholden to the outside forces that dragged you down in the past, but rather develop an inner strength to withstand the dysfunction coming at you.
- Practice breathing. Yes, as crazy as it sounds, learning to breathe deeply can save you in times of emotional distress. The mind cannot focus on two things at once. While Uncle Max is yelling, you are breathing deeply. Picture a blue balloon inside your stomach that fills up as you inhale, and deflates as you exhale. When the trouble starts, just breathe.
- Create a different experience. If you hate going to Cousin Myrtle’s house every year because she is an awful cook and her kids are nasty, make new plans this year. That’s right; you do not have to go. If there are other relatives you want to see, make a separate plan with them. Meet them the day before or after for coffee and catch-up. Make plans now and let Myrtle know you won’t be joining her this year.
- Bring a friend. Moral support should never be underestimated! Maybe there is someone you know who doesn’t have a place to go, or would like to avoid their own family. Having someone with you can lessen the difficulties, because the two of you might laugh over some of the craziness. It’s helpful sometimes to have a third-party view of what’s happening.
- Try to normalize and be objective. Be like the detective watching the interactions. Even if the interactions are with you directly, mentally step outside to view what’s going on. Instead of “Why does she have to pick on me?” be more objective; “Why does that person get so nasty about so many things? What’s missing in their life?” Don’t own the bad behavior – be aware of your own filters and become more watchful and detached.
- Do something fun before or after the time with family. Go to a boxing class. Take a long walk somewhere nice (bundle up if it’s winter where you live, so you can enjoy it!). Watch a funny movie. Take in a comedy show. Get together with a friend you really enjoy. Do something for you so that your attitude is better going into the situation (if beforehand) or to decompress after your experience.
- Repeat the mantra “This too shall pass or TTSP” over and over to yourself. The holidays are tough, but they only last for a short period of time. Recognize that the experience with your family is not your whole experience. Your life is much more than this. TTSP – really.