The holidays are approaching, love them or not. And don’t’cha just love Norman Rockwell? I especially love that painting of the family at their holiday table, the mom looking all proud as her beautiful turkey gets served, the kids joyous but seemingly well-behaved, the dad all smiles. Brings back the fondest of memories, no? And a feeling that all is well with the world.
I can hear people hooting. Because who, exactly, had that holiday?
In my family of origin, holidays took on an odd tone once we lost a family member, tragically, and never quite recovered to the joyous occasions of myths and stories. Still and yet, we loved each other and did the best we could, finding simple enjoyment in one another’s company. Norman Rockwell though, it wasn’t.
And now, every year I hear horror stories from many friends about how awful their Thanksgiving was (and mind you, we’re all fairly old at this point!). Mom treated the sister better. The brother-in-law got sloshed and made inappropriate moves on (pick a relative!). Uncle Fred brought his latest in a line of trashy bottle-blonds and groped her under the table, although everyone knew. The list goes on and on and on.
What is it about holidays that brings out the worst in folks? Especially in families? Why amidst all the wonderful roast turkey, the luscious brie beforehand, all the fixin’s and champagne does tension fill the air so thick the butter knife won’t begin to cut it and you have to use the electric-carving variety?
Families is why.
None of us grew up with Norman Rockwell, and most people carry into adulthood unhealed wounds. Those get stuffed tighter than that Thanksgiving turkey, glossed over like the butter glaze, and we think baking it all in high heat will kill the emotional bacteria. Funny thing about those pesky bugs though, they thrive in the warm and dark.
So, get everybody together—even the sisters who haven’t spoken all year—toss in a timetable to get it all done and eaten before the Cowboys start playing (this is the South. LOL), and mix it all with enough wine or champagne to float Washington’s army across the Delaware, and, well, talk about a recipe for a drowning disaster!
All those hurt feelings get flushed smooth out, and before you know it, somebody has said something hurtful (which of course she actually meant, but had never been angry or drunk or whatever enough to say), somebody has stomped out, Mom starts to cry and Dad either yells or goes into another room to get saved by the NFL.
And eeeeekkkk! They have to do it all over again in a few weeks at Christmas!
God save us all.
My co-author brother (a psychiatrist), Gary L. Malone, and I talk about this in depth in What’s Wrong with My Family? And there are things you can do to prepare for the inevitable, and then to treat the wounded once the battle is over and the smoke has cleared. And here’s the big thing: “The key is to not let others, even your well-meaning (or not!) family control who you are or how you feel. If you cannot do this, it’s like having a button on your chest that anyone can hit to elicit the emotion of his choosing. In other words, if you don’t control how you feel, you’ve just given the power to do so to those crazy relatives.”
So what’s a holiday seeker to do?
1. First and foremost: Dig down and find your own wounds from growing up in your family. We all have them. All of us. Try not to do this during the holidays!
2. Deal with those wounds—on your own. So many ways exist to deal with childhood trauma. Books, groups, therapy, etc. Get a handle on what happened, how it affected you, and what you need to do to get past it.
3. This doesn’t require confronting folks. But if you choose/need to do that, avoid holidays! Every year someone tells me their (pick a relative) chose the Thanksgiving table to declare he was gay, she was pregnant, or that Uncle Henry molested one of them. Eeeekkk! There’s a time and place.
4. Realize that your family is, well, your family. And no matter what happened, they always will be. The best families are those who deal with their issues—in whatever manner—realize they’re all flawed, but love each other anyway (even if they really don’t like Uncle Fred!). You can always still love someone you don’t particularly like, and have a pleasant conversation at holidays.
5. Find Forgiveness. Which as we all know, isn’t about excusing the behavior. Might never even be spoken to the person. It’s about healing your own heart, and putting down that weight you’ve been carrying. It’s often amazing once you do, how the big ogre turns into a ridiculous caricature, and how insanely funny his antics become. Laugh. And laugh with that sister who was mad at your before. Laughter really is a great healer.
Because, as Norman Mclean said in the iconic A River Runs Through It, “It is those we live with who most elude us. But, you can love completely without complete understanding . . . “
We literally cannot escape our families, so in the meantime, pass me another slice of brie and some more champagne!
How do you plan to survive the upcoming holidays?