Family gatherings are notorious for creating tension and mental stress. For this reason, people generally try very hard to focus on the positive and not on the negative. Unfortunately, family members are often unreasonable, harbor resentments and bitterness about the past, become sensitive, needy or demanding, and of course, extremely irritated with each other.
When families become “crazed” the way to greater peace and relief from many of the common stressors is to adopt the “un-reasonable” approach: decrease the positivity and increase focus on the negative. Here is how and why it works to do this.
Unfortunately, the emotional brain does not distinguish particularly well between positive and negative excitability. Whether excitement is negative or positive, it creates tension in the body. The tension is painful, of course, when the stressors are negative. But after a few days of even mostly positive excitement, the tension still becomes uncomfortable.
For this reason, after a few days of being together, families generally start fighting. Children, too, if they get too excited, particularly in the evenings, end up in tears as a way to calm down. Fighting and tears allows for excess steam to blow off, and ends up creating distance which naturally reduces some of the excitability. It’s a shame though, because it can ruin family gatherings to have to reduce the positive tension naturally in this way.
The un-reasonable approach to reducing some of the tension caused by the positive excitability of being together is to try to reduce some of the positivity. It may not be possible to put the brakes on excitement, but trying to modulate it with calm activities such as board games, walks, baking or watching TV. Be aware of your own happiness and excitement, and be a little wary of it if you can.
FOCUS ON THE NEGATIVE
We don’t always like to remember how crabby, critical and unpleasant some family members can become after an initial rush of being happily reunited, but it is a good idea to try. Being able to identify the hurdles makes it more likely that we will be able to jump over them gracefully instead of trip over them unexpectedly.
Unfortunately, family members may become tense and edgy and frustrations can mount; every family has their share of whiny children, dissatisfied heads of the family, critical teenagers or un-cooperative great-uncles. To make matters worse, these people need the space to be who they are. Grumpy Uncle Mort may not be able to be pleasant any more than baby James can stop whining after missing his nap in the noisy house. Accepting these realities can make the holiday less daunting and anxiety-producing. Here are some of the most common problems families face.
Some family problems are more permanent than dealing with a whiny toddler, and instead, run pretty deep. A good word for these problems is “doozies.” A “real doozie” can arouse feelings that are so negative they can ruin an entire family gathering.
Typically, doozies can simmer anxiously close to boiling point for an entire visit, or be like minefields and explode unexpectedly. Building protective layers -- when it comes to doozies -- requires finding a way to become emotionally insulated so that criticism, rejection, meanness, rudeness and other hurtful behaviors don’t have to cut as deep.
For example, an age-old doozie problem is that of the possessive mother-in-law who likes to highlight all the ways her daughter-in-law is inferior and inadequate to her. These criticisms and attacks are also known as “zingers.” You may also have a family member who “zings” you regularly, and who seems completely unaware of her/his hostility.
To deal with “zinging” relatives, it is important to insulate yourself emotionally. This is like finding a way to be padded emotionally, so the zingers don’t have to hurt as much. One way to become better insulated, is to be fully prepared for a potential tidal wave of zingers. That way, you can take a deep breath and duck under the wave, instead of having it crash down upon you unexpectedly.
Having an ally close by who understands how awful the zinging relative is also helps. If you can find someone with whom to exchange knowing glances when meanness starts, you have a great way to find some insulation. Finding willing allies is an art unto itself though; don’t be hurt if a spouse or immediate family member is unable to join forces with you. Seek out another ally instead, even if it has to be someone remote, over e-mail or the phone.
Another way to create insulation is via a mantra, like “she’s so awful, she’s so awful.” Focusing on the mantra makes it more likely that you can ride through the anger and hurt until a better feeling comes along.
The main thing to remember, when seeking creative ways to create emotional insulation, is that it helps to fully accept how truly awful family members can be. When we don’t want to know or accept the awfulness, we are more vulnerable. Being vulnerable can lead to some pretty disappointing doozie situations.
CREATE A “SCENE”
Zingers and intense doozies, tension and over-stimulation, in combination with over-eating, alcohol or being tired, can sometimes lead families to astonishing heights of screaming, yelling, crying and what could indisputably be called a “scene.”
Having a scene is very scary and upsetting to families. Guilt, remorse, rage, and regret can set in only moments after voices have been raised. Some families start to think of themselves very badly as a result of a blow-up and become filled with a sense of despair. They think “why can’t we be like other, normal families”” or “our whole holiday is ruined” or “we can never be happy.”
While it may not be possible to avoid the emotional hijacking that can occur in light of the depth of feeling and the psychological history that belies most real doozies, it may be possible to prevent the all too common descent into despair. This is achieved by remembering that most families have unexpected scenes, and that there is absolutely no proven correlation between having scenes and being a terrible family. In fact, it is sometimes the closest families who have the most intense feelings about each other. Remember: deep feelings can’t always be swept under the rug; life is a process.
Sometimes, a real doozie of a scene can lead to amazing results in a family, especially when the people involved can come to finally understand the depths of their feelings for each other. The way to facilitate this possibility is to try and talk about what happened.
The time and place to process a doozie or a scene is generally when the intensity of the emotion has quieted and the ability to reason has been restored. Unfortunately, talking is not possible in many families. Worse, it isn’t always immediately productive. If talking doesn't lead to understanding, it may just produce another unpleasant, painful fight.
Eventually, however, if at least one person involved in a doozie or a scene is able to understand or effectively explain what happened emotionally, the relationship can come out ahead. There is nothing like feeling understood and loved by a person who has screamed and yelled at you, called you all sorts of names, or dismissed you ruthlessly. That is real intimacy.
So whether you are simply excited and ready for the discombobulating event of a welcome family reunion, or you struggle against a potentially devastating doozie that could ruin your entire holiday, remember that you always have at your disposal the ability to think. With thought we have a welcome shelter from the inevitable escalation of feeling. With thought, we can better prepare for what will come. We can better insulate ourselves in a challenging moment or process things afterwards. So devote some thought to yourself, your friends and relatives before, during and after your gathering and your chances of being less crazed will most certainly increase.