Emily stood in the rain intently staring at the travel poster outside the travel agency. Stunning sandy beaches, sun streaming onto golden beach goers, calm water just as blue as a sapphire. But the photo told only half the story; the headline told the rest:

“Forget the Family Drama & Escape to Barbados for the Holidays!”

Memories of last year’s holiday brought a sting of realization that she still wasn’t talking to her sister after a big fight.

There would be questions and accusations as always – and she would be the bad guy. Again. And with that, Emily was making reservations for Barbados before she even realized what was happening!

In his book, “When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People: Surviving Your Family and Keeping Your Sanity” (2005) Leonard Felder, a psychologist and author relates that his research shows fully 68 percent of those he interviewed said they found family functions “frustrating or unenjoyable”.

It’s inevitable that expectations run high during the holidays. We all have a tendency to compare the ideal families we see portrayed in advertising to our own and for many of us, these comparisons sadly fall short.

Your Family of Origin

Awareness is key in learning how your present feelings for the holidays relate to the past – whether you’re truly looking forward to time with family, or are dreading it – are influenced by your past.

Your family of origin is that family in which you grew up, typically parents and siblings, but your family or origin would also include extended family such as grandparents if they lived with you. This is the family that had the greatest impact on your formative years and who may be exerting the greatest influence on whom you’ve become as a spouse and parent.

Why do these family issues seem to loom so large? If you grew up in a healthy family environment, you likely learned the benefits of compromise and negotiation in your own marriage and are in turn, teaching those skills to your own children.

Your challenge is greater if your family of origin experienced serious issues such as mental illness, abuse, alcoholism poverty, infidelity or divorce, however the rewards of taking on this challenge can be immense, particularly to your present family.

Triggers & the Reptilian Brain

It’s important to recognize what precipitates your feelings about family holiday events, particularly extreme feelings like dread. “Triggers” can include people, places, words, sounds, smells, and tastes – nearly anything that precipitates a certain feeling or emotion. As you can imagine, the list could be endless when speaking about our family of origin!

These triggers are instinctual and originate in what’s known as the reptilian brain, a part of the triune brain responsible for basic fight/flight or freeze reactions. Confronted by even a perceived stressor, an automatic and unconscious reaction occurs: cortisol is released into the system resulting in anxiety, depression – even physical illness.

Social situations, particularly those that are emotion-laden during the holidays are ripe for triggers. Recognizing them provides you with valuable insight. A good way to determine what might trigger emotions for you is to ask yourself, “What pushes my buttons when I get together with my family?”
Keeping in mind that we all act from our own perspective allows you to gain emotional distance from these triggers and their resulting emotions and look at the situation from a more logical viewpoint. What would you tell a friend who was relating her story?

How to Align Your Expectations &
Focus on the Possibilities for the Holiday

Consider your family of origin as a mini-culture to which you belong. Now consider the other cultures you belong to: your own present family, your work, your place of worship. It’s difficult, if not impossible for everyone to get along at all times, let alone have consensus.

Your control over your family of origin is limited of course, as it is for us all, but you can control how you respond to the challenges that arise.

We all frame our thoughts in a certain way which affect how we respond to a situation:

Some people see an event as a problem; others view it as a learning experience
Some people focus on detail; others focus on the “big picture”
Some people focus on what’s happening to them personally and others focus on what’s best for the team (or family) and
Some people thrive on conflict while others seek to negotiate conflict.

You get the picture; the way others in your family frame their thoughts may be in direct opposition to yours, but recognizing this and appreciating their uniqueness allows for a more serenity during the time you’re together.

Self care is especially important during the holidays. Be a role model and establish your own boundaries – then follow through! Self care can take many forms; for instance, if staying with family causes you stress, make hotel reservations for the length of your stay.

Awareness of activities that bring you pleasure is one way to ensure your own self care. Whether you’re staying close to home or visiting out of town family, it’s important to invest in your own well being. Devoting time to quiet meditation, indulging in a luxurious massage or spa treatment, enjoying nature – even maintaining your exercise routine (modified is OK!) helps keep you healthy during times of stress.

Just as important as self care activities that bring you pleasure, is the avoidance of other activities that may not be in your best interest long-term, like excessive drinking, enjoying food that’s less nutritious, and spending excessively, to name but a few activities that look particularly attractive when you’re feeling vulnerable or stressed.

Perhaps the most empowering form of self care during the holidays is selecting those with whom you want to spend your time. Develop an awareness of those who support and nurture you; they may not be your “family of origin”, but they can be your “family of choice”!

Family of Origin Therapy

If you find that family of origin issues are too overwhelming to handle on your own or they’re affecting your present family, your spouse or children, therapy may be the answer.

Your therapist can help you examine your family background, its communication style, traditions, and patterns of behavior, thought and emotions and help you gain a new perspective.

Escape to Barbados – indeed escape of any kind – is not always possible, or in your best interest. Resolve to change your approach to the holiday season and lead the way in leaving family drama behind!

Author's Bio: 

Mary Kay Cocharo is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Monica, California. She has over 20 years experience working with individuals, couples, and families in transition. As a certified IMAGO Relationship Therapist, Mary Kay works with spouses and parents to deepen communication, resolve conflict, and rediscover the joy of being together.

In addition to private sessions in her Santa Monica office, Mary Kay is also passionate about leading workshops for engaged couples. With years of experience in premarital counseling, she is happy to offer an Imago based workshop entitled Start Right, Stay Connected. Visit her website at www.mkcocharo.com for more information.