December 16, 2019
Surviving the Cycle of Family Drama
Even the best of families are not immune to a little holiday drama. Long-standing and habitual family dynamics can trigger visceral feelings of childhood angst with such immediacy that we often find ourselves reeling. Those of us who, just days before the holidays, were law-abiding, upstanding, adult members of society abruptly devolve into irritable and immature incarnations of who we were many years (and developmental phases) ago. Indeed, while we so often focus on how to handle difficult relatives during the holidays, there is very little information available as to how we, ourselves, can endeavor to become less difficult.
The clue lies, as it often does, in acceptance. If there is anything life experience teaches us, it is that we react most negatively to those who exhibit the traits we most dislike within ourselves—and, furthermore, that resisting things that are out of our control (e.g., a family member’s behavior, a long-entrenched family dynamic), only causes unnecessary suffering for ourselves and others. This fundamental truth was summed up succinctly by the great Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher, J. Krishnamurti, who divulged that his secret to happiness is that he “[doesn’t] mind what happens.” What Krishnamurti was speaking to, I believe, was the value of presence; of accepting the current moment and whatever it brings, without resistance to that which we cannot control. This is distinguishable from apathy or indifference, which are actually opposite to acceptance. When we stop struggling against our reality, we experience absolute engagement rather than reactivity. We allow ourselves to experience a moment and all of the associated thoughts and feelings without judgment; without the automatic whirring of habitual thought patterns and reactive behaviors. In this state of mental clarity, we can intentionally engage from a place of wisdom and thoughtfulness, instead of resistance and fear.
This holiday season, instead of bracing yourself for the impact of Uncle John’s comments about your weight, or steeling yourself for the inevitable questions about your nonexistent love life, your breakup, or the way you shouldn’t be raising your child, try accepting the reality that these comments will be made whether you resist them or not. And when they are, you have all the tools of mindfulness at your disposal. You can focus on your breathing—in and out through your nose, itself a form of yoga, called pranayama. You can feel your body: squeeze one hand with the other, press your feet to the ground and feel the weight of the earth under you, place each hand on your opposite shoulder and give yourself a covert hug. Finally, you can follow the mantra of the great meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein: be simple and easy. It is highly unlikely that whatever happens at your cousin’s house is going to cause you actual harm. Your grandma’s nosiness or your father’s judgments about your life choices can be the fodder for your next therapy session, but for now they’re just what’s happening between the beef tenderloin and the dessert. You will get through this, and you will probably be back for another serving next year. There is a humor in that, and an aspect of grace.