Ever wonder if you are the only one who walks through the door of a family gathering and reverts to behaviors and mannerisms that have been mostly dormant for decades? I can fully assure you that it is extremely common, if not universal. I hear this complaint in my office (okay plenty in my private life too). It usually sounds like this, “I don’t know what it is but when I get together with my family, it’s like I’m a 13-year-old all over again.” Needless to say, this is a huge topic around the holidays when there is a high concentration of extended family togetherness.
Why is this? My observation is that it can be a number of factors that make you prone to this situation. For some people, it is that their families have out-of-date stories about them. Or maybe the family of origin never fully adjusted to having grown children. Often, the dynamic of the personalities together just feels the same, and we start to act like it is an earlier (much, much earlier) time in our lives. And, annoyingly, so do the people around us.
A common trap is to bemoan how our family members treat us. We say to ourselves, “Can’t they just grow up and move on? Don’t they get me? I’m an adult, darn it!” If they were different, surely we would be fine. We could stop playing the role of the spoiled brat, over-reactive drama-queen, shut-down no-fun downer, anxious-worrying-about-everything perfectionist, rabble-rousing antagonist, the carefree don’t give-a-crap-about-anything comedian, or the one trying to mediate all of the above and getting yelled at for it.
The first step to addressing this problem is to realize that the other family members probably will not change. Maybe you’ll get lucky and someone else will step up and act differently, changing the dynamic. Realistically, if you are the one thinking about this topic and reading this post, you are probably the best candidate. Some people will determine that their family is just too toxic or abusive and may need to disengage completely. For the majority of situations, however, it is simply the time to start using new strategies.
If things are going to change you have got to stay, as much as possible, your current adult self even when you go through the space/time wormhole that is the family gathering. It is NOT easy. It WILL take lots of practice. But something tells me that you’re going to get plenty of opportunities. It takes some planning, a strategy, and some reflection after the fact. You can start to see why lots of people want the guidance of a therapist to figure it out.
Here are some ideas for remaining an adult, even when you feel the pull of regressing into the previous version of yourself:
- Suggest environments, activities, and time-frames that are more likely to bring out the best in each other. Perhaps structure the time spent together to bring out positive experiences from the past, or try novel experiences that will help you see each other in a new, updated light. Usually extended periods of idle time bring out the old dynamics.
- If you have a partner or children, try to use them as cues for staying in your everyday way of being. You can also try to imagine how you are in social situations outside of your family and see if you can remain fairly similar.
- Bring up topics of conversation that are mutually interesting, focused on the present, and are non-controversial. It could be sports, hobbies, funny stories, sharing favorite music or television shows. Try to think ahead of some things to bring up, but don’t force the topic if there isn’t the interest-level you expected. Having present-focused conversations can help steer away from bringing up material from the past that has a tendency to bring up those old feelings and behaviors you are trying to avoid.
- Take up a task that gets you out of the fray, especially if you feel yourself slipping back in time. Maybe volunteer to entertain the kids, teach your Grandmother how to use her new Kindle, or bake something for dessert. Just try to avoid being in the same-old same-old role. Choose something a little different than what you usually do, and then focus in on that for a while.
- Keep a light spirit. Involve yourself in the most enjoyable aspects of the gathering for you personally, whether it is joking with the funny cousin or watching your favorite old-school Christmas movie, try to keep it lighthearted for your own sake.
Remember that you do get to go home and return to your normal life. Honestly… you do. When you go back to your adult life, take some time to reflect on what you did well and what you might do differently next time. Remember, it will be a work in progress for quite a long time.