Family and the Holidays

We love our families right? Every single member. Right, I hear ya. They’re not always easy to get along with; and this could make for a tense holiday get-together.  Why is it so hard to settle a family grudge, dispute or disagreement?

Before the games begin and tempers flare, I thought I would share some thoughts on why we find it harder to bury the hatchet with family than with other people in our lives.  Instead of burying it, many times, a hatchet is taken to a relationship we might otherwise want to save.

Way Bigger Investment

First let’s look at what’s at stake.  We all know we can choose our friends, but not our family; except maybe the one we marry into.  Most of us only get one family – the one we’re born into.  And we don’t always see eye to eye with family members.  I work with my clients on building, or rebuilding, healthy relationships.  Sometimes, the choice has to be made whether a relationship can be mended or needs to be severed.  However, this isn’t so easy with family.  Unless there’s something truly heinous going on that may ultimately require forgiveness plus distance, I think many of us want to have a good relationship with our families.  So again, there’s more incentive to try twice as hard.

Way Bigger Issues

Another lesson I teach my clients is to not internalize every slight made towards you in your daily life.  Most of the time, it’s not about you.  Maybe the person was having a bad day, or week, or life; and they took it out on you.  Maybe they’re just a rude person.  Maybe something happened that triggered an emotion in them that had nothing to do with you, but you unknowingly pressed a button.  The reasons are endless. The point is, another person’s behavior is not necessarily about you.

Family is different.  There’s this matrix in play that has been woven over a lifetime.  Let’s stick with immediate family, those you lived with for at least 18 years of your life.  These are the people, parents for example, who have probably had the greatest influence on you, your personality and your future.  This is the source of your story.

How did We Get Here?

Now, before you go blaming your parents or siblings for all your problems, let me point out that our perceptions are also key to the matrix.  How we interpret any behavior, message or attitude is half of the equation: Action + Interpretation = Result.

We are receiving information from everyone and everything around us all day long.  Most of it makes little impact.  The rest is processed either consciously or unconsciously.  Either way it’s processed, it leaves a mark.

The result could be an overt reaction, positive or negative; or no action at all, and an internalization of the interpretation.  An overt reaction could launch a chain reaction of interactions that either results in a healthy dialogue, or an argument, fight or misunderstanding.  Both still end up with an internalization of the event.  And we carry these internalizations into everything we experience.  They build upon one another to create the global generalization of how we perceive information.

What the heck am I talking about?!?!?  This is your story in the making.  You may have been asked, “what’s your story?”  What is it that made you who you are?

These young, formative years are the introductory chapters of your story.  But what does that have to do with any of what I started talking about?  Well, when it comes to family, all of this ‘stuff’ has been packaged up not so neatly.  When we try to unravel what happened to create tension, angst, anger or whatever other negative emotions are held onto in a relationship, it gets really messy and we never seem to be able to get to the bottom of it.

How do We Fix it?

I have no easy answer for you here.  This is where you have to look in your heart and find your part in the mess.  You see, as I said in the beginning, when we are dealing with outsiders it’s easier to attribute their treatment of us as baggage they bring into the interaction or relationship.  When we’re dealing with family, it’s more likely the baggage is home-grown; meaning, we can’t throw up our hands and not own any part of it.

If you really want to get to the bottom of it – the crux of the problem – everyone involved has to:

  1. Be ready and willing to come to the table at the same time.  If the timing isn’t right, if one person is exasperated and defensive after having been ready when the other person wasn’t, it’s likely the role-shifting will continue until both are finally tired of butting heads and want a truce.
  2. Be open to accepting any part they have played, intentionally or unintentionally.  If anyone is in a defensive mode or a blaming mode; the attempt at peace will likely be futile.
  3. Be vulnerable.  This is more difficult than the first two musts for many people.  Depending on the family dynamic, being open and vulnerable may be an entirely foreign and uncomfortable concept.  If your family is not used to talking about things in an open and honest manner that is non-confrontational in nature, being vulnerable can be very scary.  It’s scary because no one knows how to do it, what it will look like, or how it will play out.  This requires a lot of trust, which may or may not be there in the first place.  Everyone at the table has to sign on to this part and trust each other to do the same.
  4. Be kind.  This is tied to the previous step.  In order to be vulnerable, one has to be open to being hurt.  But being hurt tends to lead to defensiveness or shutting down.  Being kind means speaking to one’s own feelings and perceptions rather than the other person’s intentions.  Rather than saying something like, “you hurt me.”  You might say, “whenever you did or said X, it made me feel small, ugly, weak, etc.”  In doing so, you are not attacking the person’s behavior; rather, you are letting them know that what they did made an impact on you they may not have intended.
  5. Be forgiving.  When you realize that the other person may not have intended the behavior(s) to be hurtful, forgiveness is much easier.  But even if you can’t get to the point you are hoping to reach in the relationship, you still owe it to YOURSELF to forgive the behavior.  You see, negative emotions are like poison.  They hurt the person holding onto the emotion much more than the person they are aimed at.  Forgiveness is the antidote, so to speak.  Forgiving yourself for any part you played, is the other half of that coin.

Even if you don’t get to where you want to be in the relationship; if you were ready and willing, open to seeing your part, and vulnerable and kind, you must at the very least forgive the other person’s and your own behavior.  In doing so, you set yourself free.  In doing so, you set an example.  In doing so, you get one step closer to trying again.  You have released yourself from the outcome, put yourself out there, and showed that the process can work when everyone is truly ready.

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