December 14, 2018

By Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW

Christmas illustration of stressed womanMy patient, Han, used to dread going home to his parent’s house for the holidays. He found it hard to relax and be himself, and his wife and children also dreaded it. His parents made hurtful remarks, criticizing everything from their outfits to their opinions. The minute Han walked through the front door of his childhood home, his stomach would knot as he felt himself shift from the man he is to the boy he was. 
Han told me, “I walk in the door and wait to be bombarded: Why don’t you have more children? Why aren’t you making more money? Why don’t you have a better position? Why aren’t you more traditional? Why did you marry a white girl, etc. With each jab, I feel smaller and smaller, like I am literally shrinking…no, disappearing.”
Unfortunately, feeling diminished, tense or hurt by our family (our grandparents, parents, siblings and even our adult children) is not unusual. Emotions triggered by family interactions automatically bring us right back to how we felt as children—it’s how the brain works. My patients work hard not to get triggered. But, unfortunately, resisting the pull to a small or tense state is very hard when it comes to family. 
The parts of the brain that respond emotionally prepare us for insultsby making many internal changes. These include physical changes, such as muscular tension or changes in the gut like Han’s knotted stomach. Many emotions are also triggered, like anger, sadness, and shame. These physical and emotional responses in turn affect our self-image and confidence. Han had no tools to cope, except toburyhis feelings, which caused his low-level depression. However, there are things we can do to manage our feelings and even grow more confident in the process. 

Working Towards Acceptance 

I helped Han accept that his parents didn’t have the capacity to give him what he needed. “Why go back to an empty well expecting there to be water?” I asked. Han’s wish for his family to see him and love him unconditionally was healthy and natural. But he harbored a fantasy that his parents would change, which wasn’t serving him. In my experience, it helps to accept what is true. Han had to swallow that his parents might never fully see him or respect his choices. By accepting what is true, we can self-validate the sadness and anger we experience. We rebuild our self-esteem from there. 
This year, Han worked hard to prepare for the holidays with his family, so it wouldn’t be as painful. The more he allowed himself to experience angertowards his parents, and sadnessfor himself, the more he accepted his parents and himself. 
It also helped to understand his parents and who they are as people. As an immigrant, his father knew poverty. Although it was misguided, his parents humiliated him about not being more successful in order to motivate him. They needed him to be wealthy, so they felt secure. And, they didn’t realize they were humiliating him or that it undermined his confidence. 
Most parents don’t mean to do harm. But the lack of emotion education in our world, combined with the resulting lack of self-awareness and not remembering to use empathy makes it easy to unintentionally do damage. As hard as it is, we have to see our parents for who they are, with all their limits and weaknesses. Seeing our parents for who they are helps us deeply know and feel, I am not bad for being different from what my parents want me to be.

Doing What’s Best For You

Give some thought to what might make you leave the holidays feeling a little stronger and more confident—little changes can make a difference. Here are a few words of advice knowing that each of us have unique family circumstances.

  • Know thy self! Before going, think about how your mood is typically affected. The conscious awareness helps. By doing this, you’ll be able to say, “Here it is.” You will have predicted it and know why it is happening—your emotions are being set off. 
  • Before entering, try a grounding and breathing exercise to center and calm yourself. 
  • Try to stay mature in your family’s presence, your full adult confident self. See your parents through your adult eyes, the way you would see a co-worker or friend.
  • Try to validate your emotions. Work the Change Triangle, a tool to help you move through your emotions; burying emotions isn’t good for your health and wellbeing.
  • Don’t fight, but, do stand up for yourself. You don’t have to lash out but can gently point out, “Hey, that sounds a little harsh or humiliating.”
  • Stand-up for your spouse and children if they are criticized or treated meanly. Say something like, “We want to be here and have a nice time. If you can’t be nice, we’ll have to go.”
  • When family is toxic to your health and wellbeing (i.e., violent or abusive), give yourself permission to not spend the holidays with your family until they get help. 

We don’t get to pick our families. And, sometimes relationships can become strained and just not what we want or need. Remember you have options: you can decline an invitation, accept an invitation but set firm boundaries, implement self-help strategies to better manage, see a therapist to prepare, or you can create a different kind of holiday with friends instead of family and see how that feels. Most of all, remember to validate your feelings. It’s natural to feel sad during the holidays, especially if your family relationships disappoint you. 

Hilary is author of the award-winning book, It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self (Random House, Feb. 2018). She received her BA in biochemistry from Wesleyan University and an MSW from Fordham University. She is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor. She has published articles in The New York Times, Time, Oprah, and her blog is read worldwide. 
For more information and free resources for mental health visit:
Twitter: @HilaryJHendel
Instagram: Hilaryjacobshendel
YouTube: the Change Triangle

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