Do you ever feel a sense of dread over having to gather with family for the holidays? Do you ever find it hard to set and hold healthy boundaries with them? Do you ever feel overwhelmed by their emotional demands or caught in the middle of their drama at the dinner table?
Ram Dass once quoted:
“If you think you are enlightened, go and spend a week with your family.”
That idea has always resonated with me.
Not all of us are lucky enough to experience the holidays as a cheerful and peaceful time with family. For people with difficult family dynamics, the holidays can be a time of high stress, sadness, and emotional exhaustion.
But, if you’re a person with difficult family dynamics who loves self-development, going home for the holidays can actually become a learning experience. With the right mentality, family gatherings can be a place to understand more about the way your family operates and how those dynamics are still alive in you today.
The best way to do this is by becoming a participant-observer at gatherings. This means you balance being an active participant of the gathering, while stepping back from time-to-time to observe the larger process. In these moments, just as an anthropologist observes groups with detached curiosity, you observe the dynamics of your family system and your role within it.
Here are some questions to help you in your observation process…
Notice the Dynamics of the Larger Family System
- Who sets the emotional tone for the family gathering?
- Who walks on eggshells over whom?
- Who shuts down and who emotionally reacts?
- Who fishes for approval and validation?
- Who jumps into ‘save’ others from their discomfort?
- Who blames others for their emotions?
- Who often pulls others into their conflicts and tensions?
- Who often gets pulled into the conflicts and tensions?
- Who avoids acknowledging tension by deflecting onto a third person or thing?
- Who fits into different what roles (scapegoat, rescuer, idol, clown, helpless)?
- How often does the conversation focus on a ‘third’ instead of the people involved in the conversation (the ‘third’ could be animals, children, weather, sports, politics, TV shows and movies, celebrities, other people)?
- Who gossips to avoid vulnerability?
- Who interrupts conversations or changes the subject?
- Who avoids sharing about themselves or overshares?
- Who makes passive aggressive comments or constant criticisms?
- Who puts the focus on themselves over and over?
- Who projects their insecurities onto others?
- Who truly listens when others are sharing about themselves?
- What happens when someone sets a boundary?
- Who shares vulnerably from their personal experience?
- Who stays calm when the emotional temperature of the family rises?
- Who clearly responds instead of reacting in interactions?
- Who sets boundaries even when it’s hard?
Notice Your Dynamics in Relation to the Family System
- What are your most common triggers?
- Who do they most often come from?
- What do you tend to do when experiencing a trigger?
- What are your most common patterns?
- What role do you most commonly put yourself in or get cast into (rescuer, scapegoat, outsider, idol, clown, helpless)?
- Are you able to set boundaries?
- Are you able to share your thoughts, beliefs, and feelings authentically and vulnerably?
- What does it feel like inside of you when you set a boundary or express yourself?
- What do others do when you set a boundary or express yourself?
- After spending time with your family, how do you feel and what do you need?
A Final Note
Observing your family as a whole and observing yourself as you interact with them can foster incredible self-awareness. You see, our personal development does not exists in a vacuum or in isolation.
We come from something and our emotional and psychological development happens in the context of our relationships. Understanding our evolutionary history gives us a lot of information about how to continue moving forward with our own personal evolution.
And it’s in the home where our patterns were created that we can most easily come to ‘see’ them and evolve them.
Good luck to everyone this holiday season. Deep breaths. You are not alone.