November is the month that many people begin to process how difficult and stressful the Holidays are. Particularly if they will be around family this year. They find that they become irritable, feel anxious inside, or even downright dread being home. There are many reasons why this can be the case.
For some, this is the first Christmas without a loved one. For others, they are afraid of being around an abusive family member. For all families there is a natural family dynamic that is often at play. Marriage and family therapists call this dynamic "homeostasis." I define it this way:
Homeostasis is "the tendency of a group to maintain its well worn patterns and to resist change."
Many people (who seem to be well adjusted adults) go home and find themselves regressing to the roles of their youth.
In one family, it may look like this:
Sitting down at the table, Dad complains about what his kids have not accomplished. Then he jumps to talking about politics. Mom fills everyone's plate to the brim. Then she hints at how her oldest daughter needs to lose weight. The youngest child becomes the helpless baby sister who can't do anything right (even though she's a succesful laywer). The older brother hogs the remote like he's 16 years old again. The middle sister tries to keep the peace in the family by distracting everyone with baby photos.
In your family, it may look different. The truth is this: no matter how far we get away from our families geographically, we find ourselves returning to the roles we played when we were kids.
This truth when lived out can be quite stressful and anxiety provoking. Going back to homeostasis is not fun.
So, how can we survive the Holidays with our family?
There are a few strategies that can help us weather the dynamic of homeostasis.
#1- Accept that homeostasis is inevitable.
By expecting that it will be there, we can go into the Holidays with open eyes and be proactive versus reactive. You can be proactive about it by expecting it, and having a plan for when it happens.
#2- Pause and breathe.
This helps us engage our body through the parasympathetic nervous system. It allows us to make wiser choices. We'll discuss this more in future blog posts. (You can check out a simple, helpful breathing exercise here: https://youtu.be/YRPh_GaiL8s )
#3- Take breaks from your family.
Yes- you have permission to do this! Remember that holidays are also vacations. Here are some ideas for taking a break:
-Go outside and take a leisurely walk by yourself, or even with a family member you enjoy.
-Take a nap here and there.
-Take an hour away in a separate room and read.
-Find someone that you can lean on. Identify a family member who “gets” your experience. You can even agree to call one of your friends for both of you to vent. (Remember, you aren't the only one with a family issue, your friend may need someone to talk about what is happening with their family too!)
#4- Remember that you will leave your family and return to your own home at some point.
Sometimes, it may feel like forever. But, the reality is that this holiday is a limited time, and you'll go back to your own home and your own routines soon. Remember what's waiting for you when you get home. You have friends and your therapist to process whatever happens.
#5- Radically accept that you cannot change everything.
Be mindful and aware of your humanity. Attempting to change a family pattern that was cultivated over decades in one weekend is too much. It is a heavy, impossible lift. While it is important to speak your experience when it seems safe- be sure to remember why you are speaking. If you are speaking truth to sustain your integrity, great! If you are speaking truth to overhaul how your family carries out its homeostasis, not great.
Many clients have found the recitation of the Serenity Prayer to be helpful. (This is often used with the Twelve Step Programs. You can use it with any higher power). This prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr, says,
“God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”
If it helps- recite it when you wake up before you've engaged with anyone and again when you go to bed at night.
When you are home with your family remember there are things you can change and things you can’t.
In the end, you can’t change your family. Yet, you CAN make choices about how you will change your responses to the homeostasis of your family. The above ideas give you some alternatives to pick from.
If the holidays are stressful for you and you want someone to talk with about it, feel free to Contact Us.