Navigating Tough Family Dynamics over the Holidays

Photo Courtesy of Takay/Trunk Archive

Navigating Tough Family Dynamics over the Holidays

Navigating Tough Family Dynamics
over the Holidays

The idea of going home for the holidays will elicit either genuine cheer, slow-growing dread, or any of the myriad emotions in between. Maybe this is how it’s always been with your family this time of year, or maybe there’s a fresh wound you’re not sure how to heal. Or as one goop staffer puts it, maybe your family makes King Lear look like Three’s Company. (Humor is useful here; we’ll get to that later.)

You know what else is useful? The advice of trained professionals. We asked psychotherapist Marcy Cole, PhD, and psychiatrist Robin Berman, MD, the author of Permission to Parent, to come to the office for an intimate chat about how we can all be more loving and more present with our families despite the fact that, occasionally, that can be really, really hard. The hope is that through compassion and self-awareness, not only can we survive spending time with our families; we can find moments of genuine joy in there as well.

A Q&A with Robin Berman, MD, and Marcy Cole, PhD

Do family issues come up more at the end of the year?

COLE: We assume going home is going to be the way it’s always been. Maybe you’re the baby and everyone still treats you like a child. Maybe there’s dread around dad’s drinking, or a sibling rivalry, or any other charged stuff. A lot can come up, which is why the anticipation of going home can be anxiety-provoking for many.

BERMAN: When you go home, no matter how old you are, you can slip back into childhood roles.

How can you avoid that?

COLE: Hold off on assumptions. We’re ever-evolving beings—if you’re continuing to grow, perhaps your mom is, too. Perhaps your dad is, too. Everyone is on their own path of experiential learning. Consider going home open to recognizing the shifts other family members may have made—things may very well look, sound, and feel different to you then ever before.

BERMAN: Taking things personally makes you an easy target. Instead of looking at it through the lens of “They’re doing this to me again,” think, “This is coming from a place of their own limitations.” Try not to get roped in.

When you go back home, you get perspective on who you’ve become. Take a moment to stop, take a breath. Observe the dynamic: Proceed differently than you would have before. If your family stays in the same roles but you evolve, things will shift. When you do it differently, you are forming new neuropathways, a new dynamic. That’s what’s really joyous.

COLE: What if when you are going home and you start to feel anxious because of old stuff that may come up, you make a decision to change your dance step? If you want your mother to be more loving, extend more love to her. And try giving her that love without expectation. You can feel more at peace knowing that you are loving authentically.

How do you do that?

BERMAN: It requires self-care and self ­compassion. Within every grown woman is a little girl. Remind yourself: I’m an adult now. How scary for that little girl, to have been in that situation without the perspective I have now. When you’re dealing with someone who’s wounded, just think, Wow, their road must’ve been so much harder than mine.

COLE: Have empathy for their pain. We don’t have to be right when we go home. At the end of the day, everyone just wants to be seen, heard, loved, and valued. Sometimes setting appropriate boundaries is absolutely necessary, while remembering that the collective hope is for the family to keep their hearts open and remain connected. 

BERMAN: Listening and being present are great ways to defuse big emotions. Humor defuses so many situations, too. It’s not going to be a Norman Rockwell painting, but within the mess, there are moments of grace.

COLE: Amen, sister.

How can you use the holidays to change a dynamic with a family member, if you feel like you’re stuck?

BERMAN: When you go home, everybody has their stories and everybody has their perceptions. People often get stuck replaying their stories, and the only thing that will get you out of that loop is being present and trying to let go of that old story. Otherwise, you stay victimized by it. Running a story is about being in the past, but it’s not about who you are today. Running stories is usually about your history, and can make you feel stuck and angry.

When we’re so charged up in our family situations, it usually isn’t about the things we’re arguing about—it’s about our history and old dynamics. As the saying goes, hysterical is historical.

COLE: And it doesn’t have to be hysterical anymore, because that’s the old story. If you’re going home for the holidays, ground yourself in what’s actually happening in the present and remain awake and aware about what is rooted in old experience, and perception. These stories could go back for generations—just be mindful of that and your present experience will likely transform.

What if you’re holding on to anger?

BERMAN: Anger is a defense against pain. People just explode with anger because it’s reflexive and also can be enlivening—it gives you a feeling of power versus that feeling of vulnerability that comes from sitting with the pain. But if you can get under the anger and speak from that place, starting with “I feel hurt…,” it’s very different than “You’re an asshole!”

COLE: It’s not just about the holidays. This conversation is about daily living, in every relationship. There’s usually some redeemable quality in every human. If you dig deep enough, it’s there.

BERMAN: Things start to change when you really listen, which means listening without thinking of your next point or your own agenda. If you take a moment and listen with your wise mind, not your reflexive irrational mind, there might be an opportunity to hear and to be heard in a different way. This is the start of transforming an old dynamic.

Is there anything you can do to make it easier on yourself?

COLE: Don’t sweat the small stuff. And there’s also some physiological prep you can do before you walk in the door. I encourage my clients: “Before you turn your key in the ignition, take a few deep breaths to ground yourself. And imagine preserving your energy field, so that you don’t have to absorb what’s around you. Whether or not you believe that it works, it feels good, which is enough to bring you comfort and peace before you walk into any social situation.

BERMAN: You can also titrate the amount of time you have with your family—you don’t have to go home and sleep in your old twin bed. I had a patient who used to go home, and every time he went home, it got really toxic. He would always stay with his family, and then one year, he realized he could go home for the holidays and stay in a hotel. One night he could brave a family dinner, and the next night he could order room service.

Set it up for yourself where it’s workable. It’s important not go home with black-and-white expectations that it’s either going to be good or bad; it will most likely be both. You can have some laughs and there might also be some heated moments. These heated moments, if handled differently, can be rocket fuel for your own development.

COLE: Yes, just choose to focus on finding and enjoying those moments of connection.

BERMAN: As you get further and further away in time from your family of origin, you have more space to heal. And you can broaden what the word “family” means to include friends that feel like family, mentors at work, even mentors you don’t know. Family is no longer limited to your family of origin.

Mostly, what we’re trying to get across is: Going home can be an opportunity for personal transformation. If you change your piece of the dance and you start a new ripple, you’re the beginning of a new ripple that flows out. What are the things that are very charged for you? Think about them. Process those beforehand; find ways to work through some of them. You can’t have the same experience if you’re changing your role in it. That’s freedom.

COLE: That’s right. Going home for the holidays can be stressful, and it can also be groundbreaking. We all can choose which path to follow.

Psychiatrist and parenting expert Robin Berman, MD, is an associate professor of psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the author of Permission to Parent: How to Raise Your Child with Love & Limits. Dr. Berman is an advisor to Parents magazine and a contributor to U.S. News & World Report. Dr. Berman is a founding board member of the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA, and an advisory board member of Matthew McConaughey’s Just Keep Livin Foundation.

LA-based Dr. Marcy Cole is a holistic psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She has a private practice, seeing adults, couples, and families. She also produces live events in Los Angeles, through FirstTuesdayLA.com, a platform for women, fostering social connectivity and professional networking. Dr. Cole founded another online platform for women without children, Childless Mothers Connect. She also works currently at the John Thomas Dye school in Bel Air as the social and emotional program facilitator for students, faculty, and parents.