picture of glass ornament with snowflake on blue background

Triggered by the Holidays?

From the blog manager

Many of us raising children affected by early trauma and attachment disorders know holiday stress all too well. Even the most well-meaning relatives can inflict additional pain, sometimes because they simply do not understand, other times because they cannot help but judge. Our decisions, our families, our lives, may look very different from what they dreamed, hoped, or expected. Old hurts get triggered and we find ourselves living–even more–in a state of distrust and fear (which, come to think of it, makes us not so very different from our kids…) May Hilary’s post comfort you and help you cope. You can learn more about healing old hurts in her 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).

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Han’s story

My patient, Han, used to dread going home to his parents’ house for the holidays. He found it hard to relax and be himself. His wife and children dreaded it as well. His parents made hurtful remarks, criticizing everything from their outfits to their opinions. The minute Han walked through their door, his stomach would knot as he felt himself shift from the man he grew into to the boy he used to be.

Han told me, “I expect to be bombarded: Why don’t you have more children? You aren’t making enough money. Why don’t you have a better position? 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. That’s how the brain works. My patients work hard not to get triggered. But, unfortunately, resisting that pull is very hard when it comes to family.

The parts of the brain that respond emotionally prepare us for insults by making 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 to bury his feelings, which in turn caused 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 couldn’t 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 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 anger towards his parents and sadness for himself, the more he accepted his parents and himself.

It also helped to understand his parents. As an immigrant, his father knew poverty. Although it was misguided, his parents pressed him about not being more successful in order to motivate him. They needed him to be wealthy so that they felt secure. They didn’t realize that it undermined his confidence and he felt humiliated.

Most family members don’t mean to do harm. But the lack of emotion education in our world, combined with the resulting lack of self-awareness and forgetting empathy makes it easy to unintentionally do damage. As hard as it may be, we have to see our relatives for who they are, with all their limits and weaknesses. Seeing people for who they are helps us deeply know and feel, I am not bad for being different from what others want me to be.

Doing what is 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:

  • Know thy self! Before going, think about how your mood is typically affected. The conscious awareness helps. You will have predicted it and know why it is happening–something is setting off an emotional response.
  • 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 you can gently point out, “Hey, that sounds a little harsh.”
  • Stand-up for your spouse and children if others criticize or treat them 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 them until they get help.

Sometimes relationships become or remain strained. 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. They are trying to tell you something.

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