The Psychology of Family Holidays

As the U.S. heads into the heaviest holiday season of the year, an interesting blend of emotions often come up.  Even for those who find great joy in time with family, it can also be a stressful time.  Join me on a little journey of psychology through some of these dynamics.

Expectations.  We all have them, and most are unspoken.  This is one of those big surprise areas for couples when they first get married.  Do you: Like to relax by being at home or going out?  Sit down at the table for all meals or sit in front of the TV?  Spend your time talking or doing activities?  Spend money or save it?  Navigating differences takes patience and effort with one couple alone.  Now consider the impact of bringing family together with as many routines, styles, and personalities as a house can hold.

Boundaries.  Can you draw clear, respectful boundaries?  In families, boundaries often get mixed up.  Boundaries are really no more than understanding what’s mine, what’s yours, and what’s ours.  Being around the same people day in and day out, it is easy to expect that situations will just work themselves out- and rest on the comfort of familiarity.  However, being healthy in relationship requires speaking the truth and showing grace.  Do you tell others your needs and wants, or do you guilt them into doing what you want?  Do you really listen to understand?  Do you fear ‘rocking the boat’ and don’t speak up?  The error arises in being overly passive or overly aggressive (passive-aggressive is just a form of aggression).  These extremes involve not taking enough responsibility OR taking too much responsibility to change that which is not in our care.  This is a basic definition of drama, and what ends up happening is hurt feelings, resentment, and helplessness.  This can be countered by love- speaking up when necessary and being quiet equally as well.  Love is not guilt and obligation, though you won’t always enjoy loving, because its highest form involves sacrifice and patience.

Family rules and roles.  Ever feel a sense of freeness and independence away from all of your family only to revert to a frustrating old pattern when you are with loved ones?  Such as how the youngest sibling “performer” gets all the attention?  How your normal patience goes down the toilet when you hear incessant complaining about your life choices?  The realization that you sound like your dad though you always swore you would be different?   Family dynamics are deeply rooted.  See the next point to understand why.  It is easy to slide back into the old patterns.  Don’t put unrealistic pressure on yourself or others to change deeply rooted dynamics quickly.  Also, points of growth must be happening at other times during the year- consistently.

Old habits and brain pathways.  Think of it.  When dressing, which leg goes first into your pants?  What side of the face (or which leg) do you shave first?  Habits and routines are ingrained into our brain chemistry.  They can change, because the brain is “plastic,” but it takes work and time.  Now bring together good and bad habits with people you may or may not enjoy spending time with, and there are bound to be some sparks of tension.

Differentiation.  Healthy family functioning requires interdependence.  This is being mutually dependent on each other for the good of everyone involved.  Additionally, healthy families will encourage what’s known as differentiation- being connected, yet being a unique, independent human being.  Raising a child means transitioning this little marvel from total dependence to total independence- in a few short years.  Being over-connected (enmeshed) or disconnected (diffuse) will create problems real fast.

Truly, time with family needs patience.  And it often takes work.  It can be wonderful, too.  You may want to have a plan going into the holidays to make it successful.  Don’t forget to remember what you are grateful for and the incredible blessings you have.  It’s easy to lose vision when it seems like your family is driving you crazy.  This is where I reflect on a great example of love: Jesus had a bunch of guys that abandoned him- every one- when support was most needed.  But he loved.  I need this love.  It’s a love that speaks truth.  It’s a love that shows kindness.  It’s a love that has courage.  And I pray I can show it well during the holidays.
Yours truly,
~Justin

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