Why the Holidays Can Drive You Crazy (& What to Do about It): Part 2
This time of year, as Paul McCartney sings in his classic tune, the mood is right, the spirits are up, but that doesn’t always mean that you’re having a wonderful Christmas time. Indeed, in case you missed it, in Part 1 of this series, I considered what visiting family for the holidays can bring up—anger, sadness, frustration, anxiety, shame, and other “crazy” feelings, other painful feelings that you may even feel guilty about or that cause you to second-guess your emotional experiences. As we saw, one way to make sense of these feelings is to understand them as the result of relational trauma, which happens when someone we really care about hurts you, blames you for being hurt, and rebuffs your efforts to reconnect. These “crazy” feelings become more intense around family as members interact with and hurt each other in familiar ways.
There’s another way to think about these feelings, however. Instead of stemming from isolated “notes” of relational trauma—that is, distinct episodes of being misunderstood, blamed, and alone in your painful feelings—the “crazy” feelings you feel can also be considered as an understandable response to the music created by the ways in which your family relates to you. Every family has unwritten rules and ways of being with one another that strongly influence how we feel, and these familiar ways of relating comprise the music to which each of us learns to dance as we grow up. As the late psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell (p. 446) explains: “[C]hildren learn patterns of integrating relationships with others early on from significant caretakers, and these become the forms for connecting and loving and also for self-organization.”
Let’s pause for a moment here. Mitchell is essentially saying that we learn how to “do” relationships, how to be in close relationships, via the emotional blueprints provided by our parents. To extend the above metaphor, parents play a unique tune in relating to a child, and simply in being with them he responds by dancing in ways particular to how he experiences the music. As he dances to his parents’ “being with” melody, his inner world, his thoughts, feelings, and how he makes sense of his experiences take shape—this is what we call “self-organization,” as Mitchell describes. He continues:
They are necessarily limited, because all of us were raised by parents with their own particular, quirky personalities and difficulties in living; yet these limited forms of being and being with are maintained and defended by us as the only possible paradigms for human experience and relationship.
The dance you learned growing up becomes the way of “doing” relationships that you are familiar with in adulthood, perhaps without even knowing it. Often without even realizing it, you can’t imagine dancing—being in your own skin and in relationships with others—in another way. Dancing in the way that is unique to you feels familiar and even safe, in a way, and you defend it when you need to, especially when you bump up against someone whose dancing clashes with your own. So far so good, right?
Here’s the kicker: Every family’s music has an inherent degree of disharmony that results in “crazy” emotions. the greater the disharmony, the more intense and overwhelming the difficult feelings you feel when you’re with your family. Some families know about their disharmony and can freely share about the resultant crazy feelings, so that they don’t last. But in most families, the disharmony is part of the unconscious life of the family, maintained by the dancing of its individual members, perpetuating each one’s pain. Around the holidays, when you’re with you’re family and the music they dance to, you can’t help but feel pulled to dance in familiar yet painful ways, ways that can drive you nuts. So when you feel pulled so, what can you do? We’ll consider this and get practical in Part 3.
Mitchell, S. A. (1992). “Commentary on Trop and Stolorow’s ‘Defense Analysis in Self Psychology.'” Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 2:443-453.