Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos
Lyrics by Mel Torme
The lyrics for the oldie that Bing Crosby or Nat King Cole crooned in those mellow baritones aren’t likely circa 2023, with politics and economics and social media polemics making Good Will a rare commodity.
I see it in my practice every December when Holiday obligations add more stress than joy to the occasion. The lament is familiar, a teary description of the family dinner that starts out with good cheer and before the turkey is carved, umbrage and agitation triggered by some innocuous reference or inadvertent remark.
Insults fly as Sis opens fire
Uncle Jack nipping at the brandy flask
Same old grievances from years prior
Dad and Mom taking me to task
Lyrics by my husband having a laugh
Fortunately, you can dissolve that awkward dinner situation, and turn a halfhearted visit into an openhearted good time… if you approach your visit with two strategies: lowering the bar for your expectations and raising the heights of your boundaries. In short, be realistic and be loving.
Understand going in, no matter how much healing or growth you’ve had during the year, family interaction typically – unconsciously – reverts to the roles we once played within the family dynamic, even though the person we are now has little to do with who we were then! The person you’ve become, the person you are around your friends and co-workers, simply may not be recognized by your family.
You cannot whitewash your past childhood and the influence of the home environment. But what you can change going forward is the part you play in the continuing drama.
You have the script. You can visualize what is going to happen and predict the scenario that usually pulls you into your part in the familiar story line. And you can change the script! You can re-write your reaction and responses to the cues.
Some dialogue to rehearse to help remind you how to stay out of the storm (half kidding, half serious). Do not talk about weight and immediately stop if you find yourself whistling the Ozempic ad jingle. Avoid all conversations citing complaints about the job. Consider any opinions about all topics remotely connected to President Biden, Donald Trump, and any and all children of Misters Biden and Trump, as IEDs seconds away from being stepped on. Conversely, criticism of the Chicago Bears, White Sox, Bulls and ownership of the Chicago Cubs are excellent conversation openers.
The point is, this is the time of the year when the stress of family dysfunction brings up the issues that we thought were resolved, and when our good intentions can get undermined. So have a game plan. Understand that when things are unresolved in a family system, there’s a habitual dance calling all parties to the floor. The trick is to think about your part in that dance before the music starts.
You can bypass the emotional triggers put in place by family dynamics decades in the making. And the holiday gathering can be everything Hallmark Cards promise. Take the lead. Surprise the family by making a toast that expresses gratitude, nourishes the spirit and acknowledges the close family ties.
If you’re really in the spirit of the holiday, help with the cleanup!
With Love and Light,
Arlene Englander, LCSW