Things I love about my family:
-The goofy Santa suspenders my dad breaks out every Christmas
-The way my aunt laughs like she’s trying to knock you off your feet with joy
-How we all express our affection by drinking wine and talking over each other
-How my brother, monstrously tall, casually picks up my mom’s bird-boned body under one arm and carries her around until she cries from laughter
By some fluke of fortune, I got lucky. My family is great. They’re great!
And yet, as excited as I am to head home for the holidays, I know that without fail, some combination of the following will occur: my mom will be hurt by an offhand comment that wasn’t intended as criticism; my dad will get annoyed by one of us approaching the kitchen while he’s trying to cook and he’ll spend the next hour refusing to make eye contact with anyone but his iPad; my brother will needle out my most sensitive bit and skewer it, sending me into a tailspin of anger that crescendos in a slammed door. Somehow, all that I’ve learned in the years of therapy and self-actualization and yoga that’s helped me become a grounded adult evaporates as soon as I walk through my parents’ front door. There are moments with my family where I hover above my body and wonder: Who is that whiny, petulant, needy kid wearing my clothes?
Our family roles are established early. How we learn to operate in our families of origin subsequently determines much of the way we navigate our world. And while my family dramas are benign, many are not. Being around family can mean drawing a veil over parts of your identity your parents refuse to acknowledge, the forceful excavation of old traumas, and the creation of new wounds. It’s precisely because our families are so important — or were, when we were developing into the people we’ve become — that it is so difficult to assert independence or modify behavior. Freud defined regression as a defense mechanism: in a stressful situation, we revert back to the safest version of self in order to cope.
“One of the difficulties for adult children is that they’ve been in a pattern their whole lives of being dependent, and having their parents orchestrate their lives,” says Dr. Susan Newman, a social psychologist who has written extensively on these complex relationships. “The challenge is to understand that you are an adult, and that you don’t have to bend to every request. Essentially, you need to learn how to assert yourself. Unless you don’t mind being miserable.”
Maybe you were competitive with your sister in high school, and even though you’re past keeping score, you default to snippy one-upmanship over whether walnuts or hazelnuts would be better with the brussels sprouts. Maybe your mom struggled to cope when you were going through puberty, so you respond with chilly defensiveness when she asks about your relationship. Whatever call-and-response pattern your family elicits in you, it’s likely one that is both familiar and uncomfortable, like trying to slip your new, adult body into a favorite childhood dress.
“Nobody intentionally sets out to aggravate or annoy their parents,” says Dr. Newman. “That’s not a plot plan. Like, ‘Mom’s going to call — let’s see how annoyed I can get her!’ Most children want to please their parents.” But considering all the inherent stress of the holidays — travel, disruption to routine — it’s not surprising that regression is a common way people cope.
The anxiety may also be reactive. “You might remember a bad experience, like an obnoxious uncle you have to sit next to every year, or an aunt who forces you to eat more than you want,” Dr. Newman notes. “Maybe growing up someone was always critical of you — your weight, your friends, your hairstyle — and you worry you’ll be criticized in the same way now, which automatically puts you on the defensive.”
And even if you want to sit this one out, that might not be an option. As Dr. Newman points out, “It’s never easy to say no to family. They are your lifeline. You don’t want to disappoint them, but in not disappointing them, you can disappoint yourself.”
How can you make this holiday season different?
Know your triggers
Before your next family gathering, spend some time considering what has set you off in the past. If you know that certain family members tend to provoke you, make a point of keeping your distance by offering to create a seating chart for dinner that positions you near people who make you feel comfortable and safe. If there are questions or lines of conversation you know will be uncomfortable, rehearse your answers ahead of time.
A really neat thing about being an adult is that you are allowed to say, “No.” If you sense a fight brewing, or if a family member keeps bringing up a contentious subject, Dr. Newman advises simply saying, “I’m not comfortable discussing that.” I personally adopt a “happy and dumb” strategy: passive aggressive comments or implicit criticisms are met with a simple “Golly gee!” smile and a quick subject change. Decide for yourself what is off-limits and make a point of shifting the conversation if you sense things getting tense or feel yourself becoming anxious.
Simple yet powerful. Regression is an automatic, adrenaline-fueled response. Sometimes, slowing it down can be as simple as a short breathing exercise to re-connect to your present moment. Excuse yourself to the bathroom or take a quick walk around the block and breathe in and out through your nose on a count of four.
Define your power
“You need to honor the fact that you are an adult, that you have a full life of your own,” says Dr. Newman. “Your parents and family need to respect that, and the only way that will happen is if you don’t let them bulldoze you.” If you’ve found yourself defaulting to “sullen goth teen” despite your best efforts, try redefining your family role. Maybe you’ve become a skilled baker since living on your own: offer to assume ownership over desserts. If you have 1,700 moody flower arrangements saved on Instagram, plan the centerpieces. Anything you can do to perform autonomy will remind you that you are a full, complete person outside of your family unit.
Above all, remember you’re a real human grown person now, with whims and talents and smarts and bravery all your own. As Dr. Newman says, “You have options now that you didn’t have as a child. All the perceived consequences of your actions are not actually going to play out. You don’t have to engage in the way you might have when you were a kid.”
Illustrations by Pauline de Roussy de Sales; follow Pauline on Instagram.