Going home for the holidays is almost like stepping back in time.
Although everyone’s older, and your former bedroom may now be used for other purposes, some things are the same — that creak on the fourth step; the old photos on the mantel; the smell of the basement, etc.
And you may notice that your behavior is reminiscent of your 10-year-old self as well. For example:
- Your brother (now a father himself) grabs the TV remote and won’t give it back. You get into a heated argument, to the point where your mom has to intervene.
- Sis forgot to bring the folding chairs. Your dad shrugs it off, saying that they’ll find some old lawn chairs in the garage. “Why does she always get a pass?” you mutter to yourself. “If that were me, everyone would be jumping down my throat.”
- At dinner your mother asks you why you haven’t called your grandmother in Florida. “Why are you always picking on me?” you snap back. “Why don’t you ever ask my brother why he doesn’t call Grandma?”
This is not how you behave in your day-to-day world. In fact, most people would probably describe you as kind, considerate and accommodating. It’s only here, with your family, that you regress into a petulant child, bickering and arguing with your siblings over stupid stuff.
But it’s not really about stupid stuff. It only seems that way. The surface bickering is triggered by old fears, insecurities and resentments that you acquired in childhood and never resolved.
Thus, for example, fighting over the TV remote is not really about the remote. It’s about something deeper – maybe old feelings of competition with your brother. Similarly, your sister’s “getting a pass” on forgetting the folding chairs might anger you because as a child you may have felt overshadowed by her.
There’s no formula for determining which behavior is attached to which childhood emotion. It’s different for everyone, based on your unique experiences and perceptions as you were growing up. But one thing is for sure — you feel very little control over these emotions. They just seem to pop out of nowhere.
When old wounds from your childhood are re-activated, you experience a reaction so intense that you can feel it throughout your body. And the familiar childhood surroundings magnify everything.
Suddenly you’re 10 again…or 7, or 4… and acting like it. Your rational self has been taken over by your inner brat – that primitive part of your mind that makes you say and do things that you later regret.
Unless you recognize what’s happening, the situation can rapidly get worse. When you and your siblings start squabbling it’s not just your inner brat that’s involved. It’s theirs, too. In a matter of seconds your inner brats are reacting to one another, escalating the conflict to an irrational fury.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Emotional conflicts that have a long history are not easily erased. However, you can minimize their effect on you when you get together with your family. Here are some tips:
- Don’t start dwelling in advance on how bad things are going to be at your family event. This only gives your inner brat a head start. Instead, remind yourself that you are choosing to go, and that it’s time-limited. You’ve spent a few hours in difficult circumstances before, and you can do so again.
- Practice simple relaxation skills such as slow, deep breathing or pleasant visualization. If you find yourself getting tense at the event, take a short time-out to relax and get yourself centered again. Relaxing your body automatically relaxes your mind, and you’ll be better able to withstand others’ bothersome behavior.
- Mentally detach yourself from conflict. When your siblings act obnoxious or critical toward you, notice that such behavior reveals more about them than about you. Observe them, and see what happens when you don’t engage.
- Decide how you want to feel when you leave the family event. Do you want to leave calm and in control? Then conduct yourself in a composed manner throughout the event. Think of it as an acting job, staying in your best Academy-award role. It will take effort, and you won’t get paid big Hollywood bucks. But instead of ending up feeling frustrated and angry, you’ll leave more confident — which is a lot more satisfying than winning an argument.
Photo from eap.com.au via Flickr