Keeping Christmas joyous
It’s nearly that time of year again. Christmas. I can almost hear the collective groan: “Already! It comes around so quickly.” “Time for the yearly hassle and rush to buy Christmas presents. What a pain!” say many people. “What’s the point? It’s all a meaningless sham anyway — just a way for retailers to make money,” complain others. Such people feel like boycotting the whole event. Christmas is supposed to be a joyous time of year, yet it seems to generate misery for a lot of people. For some, the misery will be about the Christmas Day gathering with the family. “It will be the same old jokes, the same old conversations, the same old arguments and the same people getting too loud. Why bother with it all?” asked a client of mine, Michael. Some people’s families are like real-life versions of television soap operas, full of drama and hysteria. “What a nightmare,” another client, Greg, complained. “I wish I could just leave the country and avoid it all.” Some people do actually conveniently plan their yearly overseas holiday to coincide with the Christmas period. That way they can avoid the whole thing. But what is so bad about Christmas? What are we needing to avoid?
First, there’s the present giving. Should we succumb to the commercial nature of Christmas and focus on the gift giving or is it better to do a Kris Cringle and minimise the focus on material goods? And how much do you spend? Do you set a limit for everyone or do you buy generously and then get peeved at the stingy reciprocal offering? Do you get jealous about the great gift given to someone else and then ponder why you seemed to miss out? “Do they love me less? Did I do something to offend them during the year?” you may wonder. People can end up bitter and resentful, compounding long-standing issues that have never been resolved.
With divorce and blended families so common, it can make Christmas day a nightmare in terms of juggling where to go. As well as logistical difficulties, separations may bring emotional problems, too. For example, when parents have separated, the grown-up children may dislike a parent’s new partner. They feel it spoils the time with their parent. They may be resentful of the new partner and having to spend time with them rubs salt into the wound. There may also be children of the new partner to contend with. As a client, Dianne, said, “It’s like having Christmas with a bunch of strangers. I hate the fact that I have no choice in the matter.” Things can be strained and formal at an event that used to seem so much fun.
Alternatively, many people are left without family for Christmas Day. Family members may be overseas, deceased or estranged. Any of these scenarios can leave you feeling grief, loss and loneliness; uncomfortable feelings that most of us would rather avoid. Christmas, though, is such a big event it can be hard to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t matter. You can lock yourself away alone, but you know you are hiding and it hurts.
On a practical level, there’s not much open so you can’t just carry on as if it’s a normal day. It makes it that much more painful. You can go and join someone else’s Christmas gathering but that can make some people feel worse. Every family has its own way of doing things, so you end up joining in with unfamiliar rituals that exacerbate the feeling of being an outsider. You feel like you’re just tagging along.
To deal with this problem some people organise an “orphan Christmas gathering” where they join with other people in similar circumstances, and this can work quite well.
Fuss and obligation
Some people can’t bear the fuss that Christmas day inevitably brings. It’s the end of the year and they would just like to relax from their work-life stress. Instead, they have to deal with a whole other arena of stress: the family Christmas gathering. They’re expected to be “on duty” for this ritual family obligation.
Instead of being able to relax, they have to manage the demands of all the competing egos. Greg sardonically described the setup, mimicking the voices of his siblings. He said they would be saying things like:
“Here, Greg, taste my Quail a la Lamballe. I made it especially. It took me hours.”
“Hey, everyone. What do you think of this mousse? It’s my specialty.”
“No, come and try this first. It’s Nanna’s special recipe.”
“It’s exhausting,” said Greg. “Everyone is fighting for attention and no one really cares about anyone else. Just a replay of childhood, really,” he said resignedly. “Mum and Dad were too busy being high achievers to have much time for us kids, so we all competed for their approval. And it still hasn’t stopped. What a nightmare!”
“Duty”, “obligation”, “burden” and “drama” are common words used to describe the commotion of Christmas Day. What could be a fun festival actually becomes completely fraught. As Greg pointed out, it’s common for chronic family patterns and unresolved issues to surface at this time. “Let’s all try one more time to see if we can get some skerrick of attention from the folks. God, it would be hysterical if it wasn’t so sad and pathetic,” he said of his particular family dynamic.
It’s important to ask why you are actually going to the Christmas gathering. You might find you are only going out of a sense of duty. It pains many people to realise this because they have ideals about family love and closeness that don’t fit this reality. Many, while overtly rejecting the whole “spirit-of-Christmas-thing”, still buy into it deep inside and so leave themselves open to disappointment. They actually want it to be different and even think it should be different. But your family is your family; they are who they are and you can’t force them to change. If, instead, you expect little or expect the worst, there’s nothing to lose: you know what you’re up for.
Once you deal with the disappointment, you might actually decide duty is enough of a reason to go to the event. If you choose to take this position, instead of feeling forced it can take some of the misery out of the whole thing. It might be the way you repay the people who brought you up. It may be the best feeling you can muster. Treating it as a ritual of “honouring my ancestors” can give meaning to an otherwise crazy day. Take your sense of humour along as well and maybe you’ll just make it through the day intact.
Like Greg, many people dread the airing of the family dysfunction on Christmas Day. It can be bad enough seeing particular family members one at a time, but when they gather all at once it can be overwhelming. “Oh, it’s just dynamite,” said Michael, a social worker committed to his work. “I’m the black sheep of the family.” His father was a corporate high-flyer and his siblings were following in their father’s footsteps.
“There is hardly any contact from them during the year, then they insist that I come for Christmas only to pick on me the whole day. It’s so predictable,” explained Michael. “It will start off with small barbs about my lack of earning capacity or the type of ‘losers’ I work with. Then, as they get a few drinks into them, the political arguments start. It gets quite vicious. Someone will end up in tears and someone will walk out. Why do it?”
Sally’s situation was also difficult. She was a school teacher who was single but looking for a partner. “Dad will be moody and Mum will over-compensate as usual; just like it was all through childhood. Do I have to keep revisiting this stuff?” Sally described her mother as a bit of a martyr who would exhaust herself preparing for Christmas Day and would subtly let everyone know this. Sally would end up feeling guilty and so wouldn’t let herself rest all day as she assisted her mother. “I end up feeling tired and resentful.”
Sally’s father was also hard to deal with. “He’s so dominating. And even though I’m 35 years old, when I step back into the family environment I end up feeling like a child again. He makes me feel like I have to explain myself to him and defend my lifestyle. It’s ridiculous. I’m an adult! Why should I have to do this? It’s humiliating.”
Michael and Sally’s situations may sound familiar to you. There are endless variations on the theme, but the feeling of being an adult thrown back into a childhood scenario is very common. If you have not come to terms with your role in the family dynamic and if you still react to the family pattern, Christmas Day can be extremely uncomfortable. Many people find that feelings of depression, anxiety or resentment surface as they get closer to the actual day, then they will stew over it all for months afterwards.
One of the first steps towards coping with the day is to see the part you play in the family system. This is not to take responsibility away from the other family members; it’s just a far more useful perspective than a victim mentality. Michael realised he actually came to the day primed to play the role of “black sheep”. As we explored what would happen, we found that Michael would bite back all the time. He was not only defensive, he was also combative and provocative. He was just as dismissive of his family’s ideas as they were of his. This attitude could only end in nastiness and squabbling.
Sally sheepishly realised that on Christmas Day she ended up becoming a martyr just like her mother. She gave up her own needs just to try to keep her mother happy. And while Sally’s father treated her like a child she also actually played the role of the child, being obsequious and trying to get her father’s approval.
When Michael and Sally stopped holding onto the role of victim and acknowledged their own participation in the family drama it brought them some sense of freedom and relief.
Understanding your role
The next step is to have a look at why you might be taking on such roles. Sally acknowledged she had never really grown up. She lacked confidence and self-esteem, always looking to others for approval. She lacked boundaries and would let other people’s emotions, needs and opinions overwhelm hers. The payoff for her was that she never had to take responsibility for her life. She never had to take risks in life and never made choices for herself. There was always someone else to blame. Sally could therefore maintain the childlike illusion that life was safe and under control. Michael got a payoff from being the “black sheep” in terms of being able to feel righteous and superior to everyone else in his family. While he was able to be compassionate in his work, it was completely lacking in his attitude towards his family. In this way he unconsciously played out feelings of revenge on his family for the pain he had suffered at their hands earlier in life.
Such issues can be quite deep and may take time to work with, but they make it easier to understand why the Christmas Day gathering can evoke such strong feelings. If you want to go the next step you can look at how you might change your behaviours on the day.
For Sally, this would mean sitting down and letting her mother play the martyr role without actually joining her in it. Sally had to practise tolerating feelings of guilt and not have these feelings mean she was doing the wrong thing. It was like an emotional “rewiring”. Sally was also practising keeping a boundary between herself and her parents so she wasn’t constantly influenced by them. These new skills would also be essential to her life in the broader world as she began to develop the courage to choose her own life direction.
Michael was going to try to let his family make their comments without arguing back. If he did not add fuel to the fire, the issues would extinguish. He had to learn to manage anger, to be able to choose when, where and how to express it. This, too, was a long-term project that affected other areas of his life, not just his family life. For both Sally and Michael, Christmas Day was an opportunity to practise things they had been working on for some time.
The family system
Another useful tactic for managing Christmas Day is to get some understanding of how your family system works as a whole. What are the roles people are playing? When you get lost inside the sticky family web and can’t see what’s going on it’s easy to get confused and reactive. When you can identify people’s behaviour and motivations it’s easier to stand apart and remain free.
Christmas Day can be like a cultural excursion with you as the social scientist observing the behaviours of the “locals”. Just don’t choose Christmas Day as the day you reveal your new understandings to everyone. Nor should it be the day for speaking truths you’ve held onto for years. It’s already too big a day for everyone and this combined with alcohol could turn it into a bigger disaster than ever!
Generational family themes
Michael was keen to pull apart the web of his family system. He had recognised how sad his family was but had never really learned to tolerate these painful feelings. Instead, he hid behind anger because this was more bearable. As he became able to accommodate his sadness he was able to be less reactive with his family. He saw how the themes of inadequacy and striving had been passed down for generations. His parents had tried and failed to impress their own overly strict and high-achieving parents and they didn’t have the awareness to see they were creating the same scenario again.
Michael decided he would be the circuit-breaker, the person who would stop the flow of damage down to another generation. “The buck stops with me. I’m going to deal with this stuff. If it means I feel miserable while I deal with it all, then so be it. But I am just not going to pass this stuff on to my kids.”
Sally, too, began the journey from self-awareness to self-management. She realised her mother suffered from low self-esteem and compensated by pleasing others. This was how she got some sense of self worth. Sally saw these traits mirrored in herself and, like Michael, she didn’t want to continue to carry this pain. She also realised her father’s dominating attitude actually came from fear. He came from a conservative, rigid family where control was used to cope with the unpredictability of life. The young death of a sibling had put the family control mechanism into overdrive. Sally’s father had therefore built a hard shell around himself to protect him from life’s pain. Instead of fearing her father, she began to see how sad he actually was. Like Michael, she had to learn to face her sadness instead of coping with it through “people-pleasing” and submissiveness.
The process of dealing with feelings generated by our family takes courage and clear-sighted awareness. We have to face things we might not like to see in ourselves and we have to develop the capacity to deal with painful emotions. Along the way, however, we gain a sense of compassion for the predicament of other family members. Behaviour that may look hurtful and deliberate is often coming from weakness and pain.
As we generate compassion and understanding for our family, we will also find ourselves seeing the world at large more clearly. We become less reactive and judgemental and more able to choose how best to respond to people. This new attitude can be the real “gift” we bring to our family on Christmas Day.
All names have been changed to protect client confidentiality.
Cynthia Hickman is a psychologist working in private practice in Melbourne. M: 0417 103 018