For those of us with difficult family dynamics, family gatherings can be a challenging and stressful experience. Through my personal lived experience and work as a therapist, I’ve learned that it helps to go into them with a learning and growth mindset. This means intentionally engaging in our own personal development process and practicing emotional maturity when we gather with our families.
Here are a few ways to do so...
1. Practice Awareness
As a social species, we tend to experience unconscious processes like emotions and automatic thoughts as we relate to others. This is especially true when we are interacting with family members since they are our primordial bonds and tend to have the biggest impact on us.
When you’re interacting with your family members at gatherings, practice slowing down and observing your inner experience moment-to-moment. Tune into yourself and notice the sensations and emotions that arise. Notice your instincts and impulses. Notice automatic thoughts and judgments.
Bring conscious awareness to your unconscious experience.
2. Practice Boundaries
Healthy boundaries are a way of helping us manage our energy, protect our well-being, and maintain the best version of ourselves. Family gatherings can be emotionally taxing without healthy boundaries. Emotional maturity requires that we know what our emotional needs and limits are, and then practice setting and holding healthy boundaries to meet them.
In the weeks leading up to the gathering and during the gathering, practice defining, setting, and holding your boundaries. Stay connected to the higher purpose of protecting your well-being and maintaining your best self.
Healthy boundaries could be:
- Deciding what gatherings you will or won’t attend.
- Whether or not you will host a gathering.
- Who you will or won’t bring to gatherings you’re attending.
- Who you will or won’t invite to gatherings you’re hosting.
- How much labor you’ll do for gatherings you’re hosting or attending.
- What conversations you will or won’t engage in.
- What information you will or won’t share.
- What you will or won’t take on emotionally from others.
- When you will leave interactions or conversations.
- When you will arrive and leave gatherings.
3. Practice Interrupting Patterns
The dynamics and unconscious patterns we grew up with tend to be deeply ingrained. The little child inside us comes alive when we go home and we can get pulled back into old ways of interacting when we are back in that environment.
We might find ourselves falling back into playing the roles we were cast into, whether that be the rescuer, the helper, the helpless, the idol, the outsider, or the problem child. We might find ourselves getting defensive, reacting emotionally, or seeking approval and validation.
We might find ourselves soothing others, giving unsolicited advice, criticizing, or judging. We might find ourselves tiptoeing around a certain person, avoiding vulnerability, or oversharing. We might find ourselves shutting down and distracting ourselves or trying to draw more attention to ourselves.
In the weeks leading up to the gathering, and especially at the gathering, notice when you default to old unconscious patterns. Practice interrupting them with new conscious behaviors instead.
4. Practice Noticing Triggers
Emotional triggers are unresolved emotions in us that, when poked at, tend to get emotionally activated. Often times, our family members know exactly how to poke at these sensitive areas in us. This sets off a chain reaction, often informed by past patterning.
When triggered in an interaction, we might find ourselves feeling anxious, frustrated, annoyed, insecure, or angry. We might then become reactive, defensive, or shut down altogether, depending on our learned coping behaviors.
But triggers can be our teachers. They can illuminate for us the parts of us that need attention and processing. So, take note when you get triggered and why. You can later reflect on the triggers and process them with a trusted other, such as a partner or a therapist.
5. Practice Self-Regulation
Self-regulation is the art of taking responsibility for managing our emotional experience, moment-to-moment as our emotions arise. Instead of acting out on our emotions and triggers, repressing them, or dumping them on others, we regulate ourselves back to calm and thoughtfulness.
Use emotional awareness to notice when you are feeling activated and then find healthy ways to soothe and calm yourself. This could mean taking a few deep breaths in the moment, relaxing your shoulders and arms, going outside for a brief walk, or walking into a room to spend time with yourself for a few moments.
It could also mean you need to leave an interaction or the gathering altogether. The key is to know what you need to bring yourself back to calm and doing so.
6. Practice Responding Over Reacting
Oftentimes, we automatically react in our interactions with others. We feel an emotion and go with our default behavior. This behavior is normally based on our unconscious conditioning and it can lead to unwanted consequences.
Emotionally responding instead of reacting means creating space between the emotion and what we end up doing with that emotion. In that space, we have time to think and make a more conscious choice about how to act, instead of going with the automatic default.
To respond instead of react:
- Stop for a brief moment.
- Take a few deep and slow breaths.
- Observe your environment and gather information.
- Plan your next best move and proceed.
This is ultimately about interrupting automatic reactions and choosing a more constructive response in your interactions with your family members.
7. Practice Self-Validation
Self-validation is ultimately the subtle art of letting go of the need for approval from the external world. It’s about trusting our own inner compass, thoughts, beliefs, and life choices more than we trust anyone else’s. This can be hard with family — especially parents — because it’s human nature to seek the approval of our caregivers.
But, our parents don’t walk in our shoes 24/7, they don’t live in the same context as our generation does, and they won’t be around forever. We must learn to trust ourselves and approve of ourselves. Self-validation helps us build self-trust, authentic confidence, a strong sense of self.
At gatherings, practice letting go of the need for approval and validate yourself when you receive disapproval, dismissiveness, or criticism.
8. Practice Detached Curiosity
Gatherings are a great time to see how your family functions across generations and where you learned your patterns. There’s so much you can learn about the dynamics of larger family system and your place within it by just observing everyone.
Observe how members of the family interact with each other. Observe the different roles people take on. Observe your own role in the family. Observe what comes up for you as you interact with everyone.
If you’re lucky enough to have several generations alive and gathering, observe the patterns that repeat across those generations. Get curious and ask different people about their history, especially the elders in the family who have seen the evolution of the family’s generations over the decades. Express genuine and curiosity and interest in knowing more about everyone.
The key here is to practice being a detached observer, meaning you don’t get caught up in changing how people are interacting. You just watch, notice, and take mental notes. You become your own family anthropologist and historian.
A Final Note
This whole process is about practicing tiny little moments of progress and change. Each moment that you do something different than you’ve always done, no matter how small, new neural connections in your brain and body get wired.
Our original families are the people that will most likely bring out emotional reactivity and automatic patterns in us. They are the relationships that likely have the most emotional impact on us. If we can practice emotional maturity in our families, we will likely be able to take that into other areas of our lives.
This is hard work. It’s not an overnight process. It’s the small habits practiced over and over again that add up over time. Sometimes you will forget and fall into an old pattern, sometimes you’ll regress, sometimes you’ll be too tired to do the hard thing, and that’s alright. It’s a lifelong practice of slow growth.
Happy gathering everyone!
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