...alongside unmet longing, sadness and hard, thwarted effort—such deeply mixed feelings. Knowing what to do with these mixed feelings can be key to capturing the joy of the holidays. Consider the following.
A man and his wife visit his home for the holidays… Determined to hold his own at the holiday dinner table, he talks in carefully understated excitement about a new business venture. His father, an envious man ever guarding his own position of top dog in the family, scathingly retorts, “Oh John, stop bragging. You don’t see anyone else bragging.” And John once again finds himself painfully outside the men’s club dominated by the overpowering presence of his father and older brothers—unable to break free from the stubborn, painful family dynamic in which he has always been cast as the weak, inferior foil to the shining strength of real men.
Or a woman, trying to finally earn that gleam in her mother’s eye flips into a perfectionism that strives after the refined 15-course meals and exquisitely charming decorations that will make her home the desired place to be. Preparations could be fun. With a designer flair, this woman is actually quite good at homemaking. But driven too hard by longings that remain unfulfilled, preparations are tedious and burdensome. Thwarted longings come to a head on Christmas Day, when, after weeks of searching for the perfect gift, she is once again crushed as her mother thrills over a younger brother’s gift, disdainfully overlooking hers. Bitter and exhausted, she once again hates the holidays.
The one good thing about family dynamics—our entrenched ways of interacting within our families of origin that leave us ever cast in the same damning role--is that they are predictable. Rigidly entrenched, the dynamics repeat themselves—same old, same old—boringly, if painfully, played out. That we can predict our families’ dynamics—and our roles in them--is immensely empowering. It’s like going into battle (or a chess game, if you’re conflict avoidant :) with the opponent’s strategy foreknown. We can think about the dynamics and strategize ways to win—ways to emerge as the person we want to be in our families—the person we’ve successfully become in the wider world--rather than inevitably getting sucked back into the same unwanted role we’ve endured since childhood.
Thus John could easily predict his father’s response. The man has always been a bully, shaming and overpowering any emergence of new strength. In his heart of hearts, John knows his father well and could write the script of his Dad’s response to his excitement about his new business. And he could rewrite his own script--if he would pause to look deep within and face hard realities about who his father is and the impotent position John has allowed himself to remain trapped in as an adult vis-a-vis his father. Facing these realities would involve mourning and letting go of his wishes for admiration from his father as well as for a hearty welcoming into the men’s club by the men in his family. And facing these realities could also allow him to say something like this to his father: “Dad, actually, I’m not bragging. I’m excited, and I’m sorry you can’t share in my excitement.” For the first time in his life, he would have a comeback that confronts and silences his father’s grandiose, rude control. His father may get angry. The comeback may not invite closeness to his Dad who may, in fact, be incapable of closeness. Other family members may stir uneasily, afraid of overthrowing the old way of doing things. Some may feel proud of John, secretly rooting for him. But the point is that John will have responded with integrity and dignity, not allowing his father to cast him in the traditional powerless role. A toxic tradition will be broken. If John persists in responding with dignity and forthrightness, the family dynamic is changed. John takes back power from his father--power that is legitimately his. He is no longer one-down to his father’s one-up.
It only takes one person to change a family dynamic. But it takes great courage to be that one person who dares to invite change.
So, too, the woman could predict that she will not attain specialness with her mother this Christmas. It seems achingly obvious that she’s longing for a specialness from her mother that’s never happened and never will. She’s been experiencing the same rejection for years. But we can be masters at avoiding painful realities. And clinging to the hope that this year will finally be different is a prime way of avoiding the reality that her mother has never given her what she really wants--and probably never will. It seems obvious. But it is by no means a given that any of us will muster the courage to face these obvious realities behind our unmet longings. If we do embark on this path of facing unwanted realities and letting go of impossible wishes, it is sad, hard, wise work that can yield really sweet outcomes.
I would love to be a fly on the wall the first Christmas after this woman truly, deeply realizes her mother cannot give her what she wants. Distinct differences will unfold. As always, she won’t get the gleam in her mother’s eye. But for the first time she won’t be looking for it. Rather, she sits back, viewing her family from a whole new perspective. She widens her focus to take in other family members who love and enjoy her, letting them replace her mother on center stage. As her mother experiences a noticeable loss of power, the daughter feels relief and joy that the tables are finally turned. She basks in the new found freedom of not needing specialness from her Mom; and, rather than envying her younger brother, she pities him, seeing how stuck he is in the seductive favored position. She thoroughly enjoys this hard fought new perspective; and, for the first time, she thoroughly enjoys her holidays.
Holidays are to be enjoyed. They can hold warm and magical traditions full of rich memories: the steadying sparkle of lit candles; awe sitting in a very big Santa’s lap; reverent, holy tales that hold out great hope; wrapped gifts beckoning with mystery and excitement… Such fun- or joy-filled habits repeated over and over again become traditions that we can count on, that make us happy. In an instant, these traditions invite us back to the joy our families carefully crafted for us at the holidays.
But traditions can also be toxic, and toxic traditions need to be broken. They are broken through embracing hard-fought and often heartbreaking change in perspective. This journey of change should not be faced alone. Seek the outside perspective, support and comfort of a therapist, spiritual director, life coach, or objective, wise friend to guide you on your journey. But do begin to break the toxic traditions--while firmly hanging onto the joyful ones…
and have yourself a very happy holiday this year.
© Maribeth Ekey, Psy.D.