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There's one question that haunts many people during the holidays: "How do I keep my cool around [insert difficult family member]?" Immediately after the holidays, it's, "[insert difficult family member] made me feel [insert uncomfortable, overwhelming, self-limiting, self-loathing, or other unwanted emotions].
How is it that certain people have a knack for getting under our skin, pressing our buttons, or making us feel like we want to bang our heads against the wall, rage, scream, cry, or pull out our own hair (or theirs)? And we still spend the holidays together!?
It happens. It's normal. But we need a playbook.
Here's how you can turn uncomfortable holiday experiences into opportunities for growth and expansion.
Phase 1: HELPLESSNESS
Many people describe a certain sense of obligation surrounding holiday gatherings, which, when paired with uncomfortable situations and challenging family members, can lead to feeling stuck, trapped, or helpless. When you don't want to be somewhere or around certain people, watching your situational fears unfold in front of your eyes could reaffirm that there actually is, if only for a brief moment, a hell on earth.
You knew this would happen. Yet, here you are. Again. And feeling like there’s nothing you can do about it.
Feeling stuck, trapped, or like your hands are tied behind your back doesn’t only suck - it’s neurobiologically linked to traumatic memories and the way they are encoded in your brain and body. If you feel stuck in your holiday get together, you’ll likely summon some other pretty hurtful emotions.
That’s because helplessness is the strongest predictor of trauma and therefore, it can be the strongest trigger for traumatic memories too.
What is trauma anyway?
- Trauma is when your body's physical and/or emotional resources are overwhelmed by a painful experience.
When an experience becomes traumatic, your body signals: this pain is so bad, I need to remember it extremely well—too well—to make sure it never happens again. You then become very aware and sensitive to subtle reminders of these experiences. The bad memories are encoded so deeply in your core, and often beyond the reach of your conscious awareness, that a slight reminder of the original trauma in your day-to-day life could trigger a whole body reaction (emotional, cognitive, physiological) as if the negative experience was happening again.
"But I've never experienced something 'traumatic'"
We are coming to understand trauma on a spectrum. It's not just about combat veterans who have nightmares and flashbacks or survivors of sexual abuse. It includes ordinary people in relationships who can't seem to communicate effectively in the avalanche of their emotions. It includes relatives sitting at Holiday dinner finding themselves trapped in uncomfortable and awkward moments, passive aggressiveness, building anger, resentment, feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, or bitter rivalry.
For many people who have never experienced something "traumatic," I ask, "Have you ever felt helpless?" The answer for everyone is yes, and before you jump to defend yourself, hear me out. Children are completely dependent and at the mercy of their parents. They are incapable of fending for themselves. Children need compassionate, safe, attuned caregivers who demonstrate consistency, structure, love, sensitivity, compassion, trust, a regard for their children's emotions, and who show them they are special, worthy, strong, and capable. As children we depend on our parents for these things, necessities for healthy development. But we were never able to choose our parents and we were not adequately developed to effectively deal with the limitations (and there are always limitations) in our rearing environment. We were not legally or physically in a position to effect change to get our needs met. We were helplessly reliant on our parents for our development. If something was missing, it hurt and limited us, and there was nothing we could do about it. Until now.
Read Michelle Farivar's article, "Black Hats and the Shame of a Persian Jewish Girl," Beyond The Interview's most-read piece to date.
Due to the cognitive limitations of childhood the ways we learned to adapt, and the ways in which we continue to see the world, can be unknown to us (or subconscious) in our adult lives.
How does all this go on at a simple holiday get together?
When we have difficult experiences from childhood, we may have symptoms of trauma that we don't even know we have.
Do you have pet-peeves or certain people that simply get under your skin, take you over the edge, or drive you crazy?
People or situations that make you uncomfortable, rub you the wrong way, hurt your feelings, or that leave you feeling outraged at the injustice of it all?
These may be linked to disappointments and pain occurring in the context of helplessness in the childhood experience.
How To Overcome Feelings of helpless and powerlessness during the holiday season.
1. Acknowledge your power.
Feeling trapped or uncomfortable at the dinner table can bring up the feelings (without the rational thought or understanding) of other experiences in which you were also feeling trapped or helpless. These experiences will hijack your brain and body...unless you wise up.
When you notice yourself feeling trapped or uncomfortable, notice this feeling and interrupt it! Ask yourself why? You chose to be here, didn't you? Regardless of the pressure you felt, remind yourself that you made a decision to be here. Trace back for yourself the reasons you chose to be here. Remembering and acknowledging your ability to choose is the first step to taking your power back, and therefore contrary to the trauma experience.
Even if you chose to be at the holiday gathering because you want to make sure you get your holiday presents, or if you chose because you feel bad for your grandfather because you know he wants to see you...You made that choice. Accept it. Own it. It's not about the quality of your decision making at this point. It's about you being the decision maker of your life.
This is a supremely important step that many overlook. Within it lies the power within you waiting to be claimed: you are not the helpless child any longer. You are an adult that makes decisions. Hopefully, you think your decisions through. If you are constantly acting out of blind obligation and operating as if you have no options, you are likely to make poor decisions that are not thought out. You are likely re-living the helpless child experience. If you are unsatisfied with your decision-making or process of weighing out the consequences of your actions, then that’s another topic.
Let’s not confuse being a victim with difficulty making good decisions.
2. Don’t give up your power: Don't vilify.
Once you've noticed some of your power, why on earth would you give it away?
When Aunt Joan asks you a question that seems condescending or ill-intentioned at the dinner table, or when Uncle Richard talks politics in his...exuberant way...you may feel hurt, offended, or chastised even. Some people will get so mad at these family members, building them up as villains in their minds. This only adds fuel to the fire at the dinner table, and in our hearts.
The thing is: When we vilify another person, we make a few key mistakes.
- We turn ourselves into the victim: For every villain there must be a victim. We make ourselves powerless.
- We literally hurt ourselves by carrying resentment.
- We contribute to a negative interaction in the present. Read: self-fulfilling prophecy.
- We objectify the other person and deny the humanity in them (meaning that they are also a human being with wishes, desires, hopes, fears, and pain).
- We give them all the power over us.
WHEN YOU SEE YOURSELF AS HELPLESS YOU ARE CONTRIBUTING TO YOUR OWN TRAUMATIZATION:
This means you contribute to keeping yourself stuck in this pattern. It's like prolonging the itch on your mosquito bite because of your inability to stop scratching... because it hurts so good.
So if blaming other people for your feelings is akin to giving up your power then what do you do?
3. Explore with loving-kindness.
When you acknowledge that your personal reactions come from within you, and not from anyone pulling your strings as if you were their puppet, that opens up a whole world of opportunity for your growth and healing. When you can ask yourself important questions like, "What's coming up for me right now?" "Why does Aunt Joan's tone and Uncle Richard's ignorance bother me so much?"
You've not only acknowledged your power and held your power firmly, now you can actually exercise that power.
Exercising your power means continuing to hold that power and not giving it away (which can be a lot for a newbie putting these skills to practice; if this is you, be proud of yourself for this! It takes practice.), and then finding time and space to explore your reactions. What are the pet-peeves and other feelings that come up for you? What is the underlying hurt? Is it related to feeling rejected? Is it related to injustice? Is it related to feeling lonely? Unimportant? We all have our "things." Your job is not only to discover the "things" that make you want to scratch your mosquito bite, but then to examine your "things" with loving compassion and wonder.
For example, in response to feeling unacknowledged by your family for your recent promotion, new job, or academic accomplishment: "Hmm. I wonder why I am so worried about other people's validation of me. I acknowledge that it's not about these family members, but that something is happening within me. I wonder where that comes from. I love and approve of myself and will continue to monitor my feelings and my thoughts to learn more about that. Since I am now a capable adult and no longer a dependent child I acknowledge my power and will to heal myself with love."
When you regularly practice noticing (see: mindfulness) what your "things" are and how they behave in your inner world (i.e., the tricks they use and when you are most vulnerable to them) you are rewiring your brain to be able to choose a new, empowered path.
ULTIMATE Holiday Damage Control
For this, you must find and choose self-power over helplessness. If you feel yourself become triggered in a holiday situation, it's not too late to take your power back:
- TAKE SOME BREATHS: Take a few deep breaths
- ACCEPT: Feel your frustration.
- DETACH: Acknowledge that your feelings are your feelings. They come from within you. The other person cannot make you feel this way. Don't give up your power.
- EXPLORE: With a sense of loving wonder, ask yourself, where is this coming from? Where have I felt this before? Your feelings have alerted you to the presence of a wound somewhere. It may take some time to find it. Stay curious and patient with yourself and the answers will present themselves over time.
- LOVE: The wound will only heal with your love and acceptance. Resist old patterns of guilt and shame. Shower your wounds with love.
- FEEL PROUD OF YOURSELF: Whether or not you figure out the answer at this dinner party, be loving, kind and proud of yourself. Not only did you increase your self-knowledge and your power over the situation, you also increased the time before your reaction, helping you to literally rewire your brain.
If you follow these steps, you can turn uncomfortable holiday experiences into opportunities for growth and expansion. You emancipate yourself from anxiety, helplessness, old patterns, and struggles so that you can reclaim your power. Game over. You win.
Dr. Michelle Farivar
Dr. Michelle Farivar is a therapist at Beverly Hills Mind Wellness, under the supervision of Dr. Ryan Janis. Her special interests include multicultural, family, and relationship issues, anxiety, depression, self-esteem, work performance and creativity. She is the founder and president of WEHOT (Welcome Home Together), an interactive empowerment community for anyone who has ever felt pressure to be something other than themselves.