It was no joke when Ram Dass said:
‘If you think you’re enlightened, spend a week with your family.’
Today, I want to share my thoughts on the triggers that show up inside of the family system at this time of year, and offer some perspectives that might help you sail through your festivities a little more smoothly.
This is a longer edition, so get comfortable, or if you’re short on time you can scroll down to the TL;DR at the bottom.
Before I get into this topic, I want to acknowledge that for very many of us, this time of year can be bittersweet. Maybe it’s the first Christmas after the loss of a loved one. Maybe you’d hoped your family might have grown this year, but didn’t. Maybe your loved ones are far away from you, and thinking about them makes your heart yearn painfully for their closeness.
Perhaps it’s the first year you’ll be spending as a split household and are working out how to best support the kids. Or maybe you’re holding it together, for the kids.
There are many reasons why this time of year can bring up a lot of “stuff” for us. So for that, I’m sending my compassion your way. I am also inviting you to embrace the energy of compassion this year (that’s your first “tool” to get you through!). Especially self-compassion.
Back to our “tests” of enlightenment that Ram Dass points to.
Our family of origin is the place we learned our most well-used and automatic relational coping strategies–for better or for worse.
Perhaps those coping strategies look like creating confluence (a more accurate term for people-pleasing), connecting through a shared experience of struggle, avoiding conflict, engaging in triangulation (where we bond over a common “enemy”), competition, codependence… there are very many possibilities for what takes place relationally inside a family unit.
There may also be roles that we play to keep the balance in check. The funny one. The carer. The sick one. The naughty one. The bright one.
These are not things we’re taught explicitly, but things we take on at a subconscious level because the behaviour proves useful to us in some way.
When we leave the family of origin, some of these roles and strategies will remain relevant–but not always constructive–and some of them will sink into the shadows because our external circumstances do not call for them.
For some of us, we’ve been working at intentionally letting go of them. We’ve been doing the work of shifting behaviours to loosen and overcome our internal limitations, and might feel like we’ve become a brand new person with our very own independent identity and healthy attachment and relational patterns.
Grandma comments on your weight.
Dad asks you when you’re going to find a partner.
Auntie Carol doesn’t understand why you don’t have a “real” job.
Cousin Ben arrives in a brand new Range Rover and has everyone swooning over his promotion.
And so then we feel that same familiar resonance again, a feeling we thought was in the past:
We feel inadequate.
We feel like we have regressed.
Probably, any response here could be helpfully mediated with a deep diaphragmatic belly breath. Not least as a way to give yourself more time to formulate your response.
The internal experience that is triggered needn’t be this resonance exactly, it could be anything. But the one thing our triggers seem to have in common is that they are old, and very familiar.
The word familiar itself stems from the Latin familiaris, meaning "domestic, private, belonging to a family, of a household". Sounds appropriate, right?
We’ve landed back in the domicile of all of those old strategies, a dynamic where they become relevant again.
Is it becoming clear why we seem to regress when we re-immerse ourselves in family life after a long absence?
The relationships we have with our family can be very intimate - intimacy in the sense of “in-to-me-see”. These people, for the most part, have known us our whole lives and have seen our adventures play out over the long run. They know which buttons to press, and can sometimes even enjoy the process.
Regardless of how much inner work we have done, there will always be more to be revealed about our pains and our (sometimes guilty) pleasures, and those who’ve known us longest are best equipped to catalyse that revelation process–again, for better or for worse.
The risk here is that we are consumed by the dynamic of the old self and feel unable to choose a new way. It is my assertion that this temptation is so strong because, as the subject of this email points to, it takes a great amount of courage to willingly accept the experience of being misunderstood by those dearest to us.
To be misunderstood is isolating.
It is maddening.
It is sad.
Not sad on the level of our favourite character dying in a series. But sad on the level that something true and dear and valuable inside of us goes unseen, unheard and unacknowledged by people who matter so much.
People who don’t have the capacity to understand the path we’ve chosen for ourselves. Perhaps one of the most painful aspects to accept.
There is perhaps less resistance to simply playing the old familiar role as opposed to standing in the new and evolved truth. This regression is very real.
But don’t fret if this happens - it’s also temporary, and contextual.
As you move through your family interactions in the coming weeks, I want you to invite along your internal witness. An aspect of yourself that is able to zoom out and see what is going on from a distance, that is able to tap into the power of curiosity as you notice from which place you are operating. The old way of being, that people expect, or the new way of being, that is a truer representation of who you are today and is anchored in a calm knowing of who you are?
Neither way of operating is right or wrong. This invitation is an exercise of awareness.
When you see from that farther out perspective, you’re able to better determine whether there is a drama triangle playing out (a dynamic where there is a victim, a villain and a hero archetype active). And if there is, see what you might do about stepping out of the triangle (or not, remember your humanity).
Even if, like my clients, you’ve looked at developing your skills around setting healthy boundaries, allowing emotions to move through you, identifying and meeting your needs and communicating in a nonviolent way, old triggers can still overwhelm the system.
This time of year is not the time to test if the work, works. Actually, to judge yourself in this period is a terrible measure of your personal growth!
All of that aside, what I want you to recognise above all, what is most important, is to see that in the coming time there is an opportunity available to step into simplicity. To soften in the face of any friction that surfaces, to lovingly say “no thanks” to unhealthy dynamics where possible, and put peace at the forefront as the North Star for how you move through what comes up.
No matter how complicated things might be, I am quite convinced there is some beauty to be found. Hold onto the preciousness of what exists before you.
May you enjoy the holidays. I wish for you to have the courage to stay true to you. I wish for you to have the courage to be misunderstood, should that be required to stay true.
I look forward to sharing my final newsletter with you next week, where I’ll be offering an antidote to the new years resolution.
With grit + grace,
TL;DR - You were born into a family. You took up a space and formed a shape that fit with them. Then you went into the world and discovered more about who you are, changing shape in the process. Then every holidays you got back and have to work through the awkwardness of not being the same shape as the space that’s available for you to fit into, and seeing that the same is true for others too. That’s complicated. Be kind to yourself and others. We’re all trying to work it out.
How can I help when you're ready?
Are holiday periods, and family dynamics more generally, particularly challenging for you? You might benefit from reading a short article I recently wrote introducing the concept of generational trauma: The inheritance you didn't ask for. Not light reading, but perhaps illuminating for you.
Okay... is it time to get serious about putting together Team Anne? Apply for a 1:1 Power Hour session with me where we can explore the possibilities of working together to support your next evolution.
Did you know that LinkedIn is not as stiff and stuffy as it used to be? These days it's my virtual coffee corner and some great/tough conversations are happening there... you can join too! Here's a post I wrote earlier this week about "wintering" and how one of my clients experienced his process with me as his personal support.