Easing Tension and Stress at Family Gatherings

Unresolved issues make it hard to fully enjoy family gatherings.

Lingering emotional wounds from our family of origin are like riptides in our psyche. At times, most of us in childhood experienced betrayal, rejection, and other painful hurts. As adults, many of us, swept along by emotional undercurrents, are unable to enjoy our time together at family gatherings. Here, for the approaching holidays, are some principles of depth psychology to help us foster good cheer.

We do want, of course, to feel affection and love for parents, brothers, sisters, and other relatives and in-laws. But time we spend with close or extended family can challenge us emotionally, producing shades of anxiety, shame, embarrassment, anger, and envy. Such gatherings bring to the surface any unresolved issues we have from childhood.

In the emotional world of our psyche, time and place are compressed. An old hurt we remember now as an adult on the West Coast can feel as fresh and sharp as when we first experienced it on the East Coast fifty years earlier. When we’re inwardly alert, we can observe ourselves returning emotionally to the scene of the “crime” to conjure afresh the old hurts of yesteryear. Often, though, people have no clear idea what they’re reacting to.

Our discomfort can be traced, in part, to childhood experiences involving broken promises, misplaced trust, willful neglect, unexplained absences, verbal and physical abuse, and the playing of favorites. Impressions of being overlooked and undervalued, and the tribulations of competing for affection, also leave visible or hidden emotional scars. Even when people aren’t aware of harboring grudges or feeling hurt, they might still unconsciously maintain an emotional and physical separation that cuts them off from the pleasures available in old, abiding relationships.

The following example shows such dynamics at play. A client in his forties attended a memorial service for a family member and left after a few hours feeling anxious and depressed. Later, he felt guilty and discouraged for not having connected in a closer way with any of his relatives in attendance. He had spent about twenty minutes talking to his mother. To him in private she made critical statements concerning people who were present at the service.

Based on what I knew of his family dynamics, I offered him this analysis: “In childhood, you often felt judged and criticized by your mother. You also heard and observed her being judgmental and critical of others, often relatives. It’s now tempting for you to identify with anyone who is being negatively evaluated. You resonate emotionally with that feeling. You unconsciously absorb, either directly or through identification with others, the feeling of being criticized. When this happens, you soak up a lot of negativity. You’re bound to have an unpleasant emotional reaction. When you’re around relatives, the feeling of criticism and its emotional associations are activated in your psyche. You see your relatives—and you feel yourself being seen by them—through this issue. That makes it difficult for you to connect with them in a way that’s comfortable or pleasurable.”

I continued by saying, “Your mother’s emphatic righteousness is another influence on your emotions. It feels to you, as it did in childhood, that her perceptions and points-of-view are dominant and must prevail, and that she’s shoving her opinions down your throat. You become passive to her influence as you allow her critical opinions to intrude so forcefully into your emotional life. Unconsciously, you’re open and receptive to her influence, even though, on a conscious level, you might reject what she is saying. You’ll be more relaxed and comfortable at family gatherings when you keep a clear eye on these weaknesses of yours. You must recognize how you have been willing unconsciously to recycle them. In other words, you recognize your attachment to these negative emotions, meaning that you are making an inner choice to fall back into them. And remember, this weakness is not your fault—you don’t have to feel bad about yourself because of it. We’re all dealing with the vagaries of human nature.”

Resentment for our parent’s flaws and imperfections serves no good purpose. At this stage of evolvement, human nature is imperfect, period. We might not like it—but it’s reality. Just about everyone is exposed to some insensitivity and injustice in childhood. Our challenge, if we want to be happy, is to liberate ourselves from our compulsion to go on feeling victimized and hurt by reality’s tough love. That’s how we become stronger and capable of good parenting.

In the attempt to understand our negative reactions to family members, it’s important to keep in mind that much of childhood is experienced subjectively. The resentments we hold toward others aren’t always based on a fair or just assessment of what occurred. What we felt as children can be an irrational extrapolation based on our acute sensitivity to feeling deprived, refused, controlled, rejected, criticized, abandoned, and betrayed. Our childish mind is simply unable to be objective concerning the complex dynamics and interplays of family life.

We make unconscious choices to keep the hurt alive. If we can recognize this self-defeating manipulation of our memories, and expose the unconscious dynamics, we see the solution in our deepening awareness instead of seeing others as the problem.

In understanding ourselves more deeply, we can begin by appreciating the extent or magnitude of our negative instincts. Much of the writing at this website addresses our unconscious inclination or temptation to experience displeasure instead of pleasure. While consciously we almost always pursue opportunities to feel pleasure, unconsciously we’re willing and ready to recycle negative emotions that are unresolved in our psyche.

Many psychologists offer only lame advice on how to avoid conflict with family members. Such advice recommends avoiding any discussion of unresolved issues, focusing on memories of the good times, and grinning-and-bearing one’s way through the ordeal of a get-together, knowing it will soon be over. Such advice is an insult to our intelligence. If following such advice is the best we can do, we’ll never find peace and happiness. Insight and self-knowledge, not superficial advice, resolve our emotional hang-ups and makes us truly smarter.