Going home for the holidays… “Home” is such a loaded word. It can hold such joyful anticipation...

...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.

Helpful Anxiety, Harmful Anxiety, and the Bell Curve of Anxiety

Quite understandably, we avoid feelings of anxiety.  We can even get anxious about getting anxious.  But right levels of anxiety are essential in facing challenging tasks. There is a bell curve to anxiety.  Optimum levels of anxiety, at the top of the bell curve, motivate, focus and energize us.  They leave us primed, revved, and ready to act on demanding tasks. 

 On the other hand, high levels of anxiety, on the right-hand tail of the curve, are overwhelming and debilitating to our focus.  Heart racing and pulse pounding, along with possible difficulty breathing and an intensely shaky feeling that threatens embarrassing and/or dangerous loss of control, we are panicking and may feel like we’re going to die.  Because the symptoms of high anxiety are alarming and mimic serious medical problems, people suffering from high anxiety often go to the ER; and, in fact, with severe anxiety, you need to have the symptoms checked out by a medical doctor. It’s not until you’ve ruled out underlying medical problems that you can be sure it’s an anxiety problem. 

But, on the left-hand tail of the curve, too little anxiety is also a problem.  With too little anxiety, we’re lackadaisical. We lack a sense of urgency.  The under-anxious person is often accused of being lazy or irresponsible.  Nothing matters.  Appearing unmotivated, he can’t mobilize the energy to stay on-task and get projects done.

 People who suffer from high anxiety suffer markedly.  But so do under-anxious people.  In fact, under-anxious people are often people who secretly suffer high anxiety.  It may look like this.

 Some people go from low anxiety to panic very quickly.  They never experience the helpful levels of anxiety.  Rather, any hint of anxiety escalates into unbearable and incapacitating anxiety.   Their experience of anxiety is all-or-nothing.  If they feel anxious, it's automatically a huge, overpowering anxiety. 

 So anxiety becomes the enemy.  At the first signs of anxiety, under-anxious people flip into a false self-soothing to get rid of the anxiety.  Of course, self-soothing can be very useful in managing anxiety.  But under-anxious people make unrealistic self-statements that deny the real difficulty of tasks they face in order to soothe away all anxiety… Daunted by the massive memorizing required by a test, a grad student tells himself, “Life’s too short to be always studying!  I’ll go play ball with the guys and deal with Econ later.” Or, not liking the anxiety she feels facing a demanding project which she’ll have to present before a large group, an engineer tells herself, “I’ve got this.  I’ll finish it next week.”  Or suffering immense anxiety about performance evaluation, a young man avoids practicing for his driver’s test, with the discomfort it triggers, saying, “How hard can it be?!  Millions of people pass it!”

Thus dreading the panic that quickly and inevitably follows that first sign of anxiety, under-anxious people trade in the benefits of “good” anxiety for a desperately sought, artificial calm.  They become absorbed in dealing with their anxiety rather than dealing with the task that’s triggering the anxiety.  They procrastinate.  Then, finally facing the task when it’s too late, they feel a realistic panic which unfortunately reinforces the whole idea that challenging tasks cause panic and are to be avoided.

 What to do to break this cycle?! Once underlying medical causes to the anxiety have been ruled out, a two-prong approach to therapy can be pivotal in mastering the anxiety.  First, it's crucial to learn increased awareness of your body, its sensations, and what the first rumbles of anxiety feel like as well as how to sustain those smaller doses of anxiety without having them automatically surge into overwhelming anxiety.  This type of body awareness is the special domain of somatic experiencing therapists who know how to teach you to listen to your body, recognize and be at home with different levels of anxiety, and learn techniques for soothing your anxiety so that you can nurture and sustain optimum levels of anxiety.

The second prong involves enhancing self-esteem through a depth psychotherapy that invites exploring past experiences that have left you feeling “one-down” or not good enough. Such feelings of low self-esteem can leave us easily overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed.  Convinced we’re not good enough, we’re easily daunted and don’t feel “up to” new tasks. Because these feelings of inadequacy are deeply rooted (in the limbic center of our brain, our so-called “emotional brain”), we can’t just talk ourselves out of them.  We may not even think about these memories.  Nevertheless, these memories can haunt us compellingly through feelings of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.  Depth psychotherapy gently invites us to remember these buried memories so that they can be finally faced and put to rest. Addressing painful memories and past trauma can allow a more robust sense of self to emerge so that we are no longer so anxious and intimidated before life and its tasks.

  • © July, 2015 Maribeth Ekey

(This article is based on  recent decades of research and thinking  on anxiety as well as on the neuroscience of memory, especially Daniel Siegel's helpful, hopeful writings and research. Further, in his nonfiction book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell provides intriguing applications of the bell curve or inverted U-curve to human behavior.)