Ah, families. Can’t live with ‘em…can’t live without ‘em.
Just as the saying goes, we may find ourselves wondering if family time is actually worth it, or just a pain in the ass? As adults, our visits with parents and siblings dredge up all kinds of feelings. We leave interactions feeling frustrated, stressed out or even angry.
This is especially true in the winter months. At this time of year, we’re often faced with more family interaction than our day-to-day norm. Whether it’s heading home for the holidays, ringing in the New Year together, or sitting around the Thanksgiving table, chances are you’ll see your family members at some point during November and December. It’s a time of joy and togetherness, but it’s also a time when we’re reminded of past resentments and frustrations.
So how do we work through these feelings? What can we do to enjoy our holiday, appreciate the positive aspects of our family, and yet, remain uncompromising to who WE are?
If you’ve been working on personal growth, it feels frightening to return to your “old stomping grounds.” When we spend time our parents, we might feel like our personal development is for naught. Suddenly, we’re six-years-old all over again. Our parents and siblings get under our skin and drive us up a wall. Is there any way to get over it?!
Why Our Family Patterns Are So Strong
Our family relationships are the earliest social structures we have. As children, our entire environment is distilled into our family and home. This microcosm sets the earliest foundation of how we will later interact with each other and those around us. It forms our beliefs about who we are, our personalities, and our perceptions, expectations and notions about relationships.
We learn how to bond with our siblings, to play nice, to share and to communicate. We learn who we are and where our boundaries hold. Our understanding and beliefs about ourselves are reinforced. We come to view the world around us as safe or unsafe, inviting or uninviting, limiting or limitless.
Similarly, to a young child a parent is often the be all end all when it comes to authority. They’re our police officers, our dictators, our leaders, our royalty, or our wardens. To a youngster, parents are the center of the universe.
As we get older, we branch out in our relationships. We explore the world around us, but those early foundations are set. The family patterns continue to echo and repeat throughout our lives and into adulthood.
We may find that even if we think we’ve completely broken away from our parents, these patterns are still deeply ingrained. We may follow different religious, political or social beliefs; we may spend when our parents saved; we may believe our relationships are nothing like those of our parents. Yet, when we look closely the influence is still always there. The way we interact with our spouse, our perceptions about our friends, or our ideas about work and interactions with authority may all still mirror those early relationships. We’re either still rebelling against, or trying to live up to an idea founded in our childhood.
The way we view our family relationships, our trust and understanding of others, our beliefs about ourselves and our world are all set up by our family structure in our earliest years.
Some of you may not like to hear those words.
It’s hard to accept our parents and family had such a profound influence on us. We like to think of ourselves as independent and masters of our own destiny. We like to believe we’re in our own driver’s seat.
If you’re doing personal growth work, reckoning with your family relationships and early upbringing is a key part of your growth and transformation. We must explore and understand these early relationships and the patterns set forth. Gaining understanding of our family relationships helps us understand why, when we return to that environment (like going home for the holidays), we almost immediately fall back into the same roles.
Going Home is Like Moving Back in Time
If you’ve ever felt like a young child when you return home to your parent’s house, you know exactly what I’m referring to.
When we walk in the door of our parents’ house, whether we’re 12, 22 or 52, we fall into the same old “boxes” or roles whether we mean to or not. The good child is once again proving themselves. The rebel is fighting against simple requests. The martyr is setting himself or herself up to take on more than requested, and letting everyone else know they should feel guilty about it.
But we can break out of this pattern! Make this year different!
Some families avoid confrontation. If you grew up in a family where you had to act as the “soother” or “put on a happy face” to make everything okay, you may have been in a conflict-avoidant household. Other households may unproductively express anger, confrontation, disappointment, or drama but endlessly spin their wheels and never reach a resolution. They may thrive on falling into the drama triangle roles of rescuer, victim and villain. In fact, they may be addicted to the drama.
Identifying our family patterns and understanding those family relationships is key. When we identify and explore the engrained family patterns, we may start seeing everyone for who they truly are, honestly and in the present. We work to understand their yearnings as well as our own. We make our feelings valid and a priority. This goes a long way toward helping us resolve past hurts, overcome limiting patterns and beliefs, and ultimately strengthen our relationships with our families.
Don’t be afraid to get it out!
Yet, no one wants a knock-down, drag-out confrontation in front of the Christmas tree or around the holiday table. The holidays are a time when we may want to preserve the peace—a goal that’s fine and even healthy (especially if your family normally thrives on drama). One way we can do this and still feel positively about the interaction is to label it.
This year, let family members know you’re not going to fall into the same patterns.
You’re going to take a vacation from patterns and the usual “baggage.” You don’t need to ignore the issues, but simply reframe the interaction.
When your sister starts to criticize your parenting skills or your mother lays the guilt trip on you, it’s perfectly fine to halt the conversation. Let them know – this holiday is different. You want to enjoy and appreciate them. There are plenty of items to address in the future (and hold to your commitment of addressing them) but for the holidays, you want to carry on in a spirit of peace and appreciation.
Even if you feel like your family doesn’t give you much to appreciate, you can acknowledge they gave you life. With all their flaws and struggles, they had they still provided you with something of great value, and for that you’re grateful. Even if the history between you is fraught with struggle and disappointment, what relationship do you wish to cultivate now, today?
Ask your family members what you can do for them in the upcoming year. What are their hopes for the new year? What’s important to them right now?
These conversations may not go as planned. In fact, it may feel fruitless and even uncomfortable. It’s okay to acknowledge the discomfort and use it as another angle for exploration. After the holidays pass, set a time to address your feelings and express your unmet needs to your family members.
The key to having a holiday that’s satisfying, productive and positive, is to allow yourself to explore and understand the familial patterns of the past. Acknowledge the history and then focus on the relationship you wish to cultivate now, today.
Understanding our family patterns helps us discover and unlock a great deal about ourselves. We gain insight into our values. We understand the why behind our limitations and pain points. Better yet, we will start to resolve those false beliefs and ideas that hold us back and move forward into the life we want—a life of purpose and fulfillment, no matter what our past may be.
So, this year, give yourself a gift. Allow yourself to approach the holiday season differently. Look at it as a chance to discover more about yourself, a chance to grow, to learn, to engage and possible even strengthen your connection with your family members. Put resentments aside and declare a vacation from those old patterns that can be so damaging.
Make this holiday season peaceful and bright!
For more on navigating your family relationships and systems and living a life of passion and purpose, please visit us at the Wright Foundation. Discover more about yourself and your personal power today.
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The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.