Last year I wrote Emotional Loneliness + The Holidays and it was one of my most read articles. This might be because family is one of those topics we always come back to, and the love/hate pulls are so strong.
While last year I was very (proudly!) single and in a stable job, this year I’m in transition between cities and jobs, and I brought home a partner I’m just crazy about.
What I found this year was that despite my relationship status, regression to a less mature version of myself around family is definitely going to happen, and honestly, having a partner doesn’t change the inner child triggers that flare up.
To quote last year’s article, this regression stems in part from the increased “loneliness of the holidays…because we are around people who are supposed to know us best, and often it feels like they barely see us. Despite 20+ years of history, the deep human urge to be seen and known is even stronger around loved ones and regularly left unfulfilled. I notice a tension to both seek ways to be seen, while also letting others know how seen and loved they are. And somehow, both attempts fall short.”
The tension arises from a family ideal that feels in plain sight, but is just beyond our reach. The family is the first place we go to fulfill our security and relational instincts, and the tiniest frustration will trigger our survival instincts. These survival instincts can feel like life or death. Dr. Sue Johnson, a leading therapist in the field of adult attachment, explains that the feelings of rejection are coded in the same part of the brain as physical pain and can feel the exact same.
The hard truth is that we will never be able to enjoy our family if we keep trying to make them something they’re not.
We’re adults now, and it’s time to own that every experience we have is an experience we create. New York Times author Jessica Grose shares a similar opinion. Her article from this holiday season, called “Your Mom is Destined to Annoy You” stirred up the following questions in me:
- How do we add to the family culture instead of criticizing it from ego and superiority?
- How do we hold true to who we are instead of blaming or being reactionary to our circumstances?
- How do we have compassion for hurting and insecure people who might lash out in ways that trigger our defense mechanisms?
- How do we have grace for ourselves when family members are just being themselves, and somehow even that bothers us?
The answers are not black and white (as much as I’d like them to be!) but instead direct us to look inside and make choices about the kind of relationships we want and what lengths we’ll go for real peace and joy.
This year I’ve made peace with the fact that I have real needs. As much as I am desperate to have these needs met by primary relationships like the ones with my family, they mostly will not be. As a child, I made sense of this by attempting to hide or shame away those needs. “If I can’t get them met, then maybe I am wrong for having them and maybe they aren’t real needs at all – simply manifestations of selfishness.” This attempt to silence the needs of my child-self only made her angry. Sure, she was quiet for a while, but one small annoyance, and that was her moment to hijack my emotions and rage inside, sometimes making a scene for what she felt was rightly hers. For example, some of us might long to hear how loved we are, but saying “I love you” is simply not in the family culture. If our go-to response is to stuff that need, trying to “get rid of it”, our emotional response will be 10x stronger when we feel the surge of that need come up for us.
But there is a better way to deal with disappointing primary relationships.
- Accepting and embracing our needs is the first step. They are real, they matter, and instead of being proof that we are bad or selfish, they are proof that we are human.
- The second step takes a bit of faith in God, the universe, or whatever your higher power might be. The second step requires trusting that our very real needs will get met, probably not how we think they will, but through the combination of spirit, community, significant others, exercise endorphin highs, and, yes, primary relationships. Our very real needs will get met, and we do not need to force that reality. Our emotional and relational needs are not here to torture us, but we get into trouble when we anxiously latch onto people to meet our needs or, to the other extreme, pretend these needs don’t exist altogether.
So, this year, lean into the tension family often creates. Get curious about why you feel the way you do and seek the “more” that is available to us. The universe creates circumstances for our healing, if only we will pay attention.