mental health blog

Holiday Stress and Family: Braving the Trip to the Button Factory

Are you familiar with those people who've known you for so long, they can, and will inevitably, push your buttons? Yep, I’m talking about your family. Maybe you see them all the time. Maybe you never see them. Maybe you like them. Maybe you don’t.   

A trusted colleague and friend said something that I return to year after year around this time. She said, “If you're feeling anxious about visiting family, that's because you’re going to the button factory. These people know where all your buttons are, and exactly how to push them...because they made them.” In other words, the reason we get so easily triggered when we’re around family is because much of our core wounding happens early in life, and oftentimes in relation to our primary caregivers. Even if you've done a ton of self-work, returning home for a few days can bring old patterns, wounds, and behaviors to life again, seemingly undoing years of therapy!

Why can visiting family be so emotional?

Memories

When you arrive for your visit, you are greeted not only by familiar faces, but a flood of memories. This is why it is natural to reminisce. Sometimes the memories are sweet and fun to revisit, and sometimes they are painful, even traumatic. The emotions that come along with difficult memories surface, and can catch you off guard or throw you off-center.

Dynamics

When you’re around people who knew you when you were young, it brings out younger parts of yourself. Hence why it is so easy to slip into old patterns. You may find yourself acting in a way you haven’t since you were a teenager, or using defenses you thought were long gone. A desire for approval, from people you decided you didn’t need it from long ago, can resurface. This can be painful, frustrating and even disorienting. There can also be pressure to join a certain dynamic that may not be useful to you in the moment such as sarcasm, humor, poking fun, certain activities, or substance use. Some dynamics are familiar and comforting, others are familiar, but painful. 

Substances

It's no secret that in times of celebration, people often consume more than they mean to, want to, or are used to. Whatever your relationship with substances, the holidays are a time when it is easy to lack awareness around limits, or judge others for their behavior. If you are sober, being in the presence of substance use can be difficult. Whether it's alcohol or other drugs, filters can soften, emotions can heighten, judgement and boundaries can blur. It can be easy to get hurt, to hurt others, or hurt yourself.

Changes and Grief

When you return to a place or a community you’ve been before, it brings awareness to all the things that have changed, and also what has not. This can cause feelings to surface ranging from pride, excitement, and relief, to grief, sadness, regret, and anger. The passage of time is highlighted, bringing awareness to stuck-ness, losses, and/or changing roles. This can bring up big questions about how time was spent, what time is left, and shifting expectations and responsibilities. Maybe you find yourself thrown into a caretaker role as a family member ages or becomes sick. On the flip side you might be the one who needs more help this year, and that is hard too. Change is so often indicative of loss. The holidays, while often a time of celebration, can bring with them a lot of grief as we remember those who are no longer with us, or may not be with us next year.   

Finances

The holidays aren’t cheap. Traveling around the holidays is especially costly, and even planning a trip home can reveal differences in financial situations. This is often a time of giving and giving can be hard; receiving can be hard too. Whatever money symbolizes for you, this time of year is sure to have you contemplating what you have, what you don’t, what you can provide, and what you can’t.

Life

And of course everyone will want to know “what you’re up to,” which lights up an inner experience of, “What am I doing with my life?!” Existential questions, finances, and resurfacing wounds all mixed in with chitchat, jet lag, itchy holiday sweaters, and alcohol? No thank you!

What are some things you can do make the trip home more manageable?

Of course not every trip home is a nightmare, and you certainly don’t have to have difficult relationships in order for this time of year to be stressful. Whether you’re imagining a smooth and easy visit, or bracing for a tense one, it is useful to think ahead so you don’t get caught off guard. As Ram Dass once said, “If you think you are enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” Even the most even keeled individuals who have done a ton of self-work get triggered, so remember, you are not alone.

Prepare yourself

As you prepare to visit loved, or not-so-loved ones, ground yourself and envision how you want to show up. Connect with your present self, and take a moment to acknowledge a lifetime of experiences that have shaped you into who you are right now. Prepare yourself to regress a bit and be gentle with yourself when you do.  

Identify your safe-people. Pick one or two people you will be around that you feel especially comfortable and safe with. If no one comes to mind, pick someone with whom you have a neutral relationship. Make them your go-to person when you need to take a moment or exit a triggering conversation. You can make an agreement with them to be buddies, or you can just know for yourself that they are a safe-zone where you can vent, roll your eyes, or get a hug.

Identify your triggers

When you imagine your trip, what makes you the most unnerved? Is it a particular person? Is it a specific topic or certain situation? Identify your own triggers. Know where your buttons are. Get familiar with warning signs that something’s getting pushed. While these warning signs are different for each person, some common ones include: getting hot, experiencing a buzzing feeling, or tension somewhere in your body. Numbness or dissociation can be signs of being extremely triggered or responding to traumatic memories. If you know your triggers, and your signs of overwhelm, you can stay one step ahead by infusing that moment with a good dose of self-soothing. On that note…

Get ready to self-soothe

Choose some of your favorite self-soothing techniques to bring with you. If you have any practices you use regularly, mentally pack them in your suitcase. The trick is to remember that you’ve brought them! If you’re drawing a blank, here are some suggestions:

Pick a safe place: pick a place, real or imaginary, where you feel at ease. Imagine yourself there, or if you can, take a moment to go there by yourself. Take a few breaths and let the setting soothe you.

Create an energetic boundary: This one can be used in the middle of a conversation with a toxic relative, or when conversation ventures into sensitive territory. Soften your gaze and imagine a barrier between you and the person/situation. I like to visualize a glass wall between myself and the other person, or mentally surround myself with a protective, golden shell.

Give yourself some soothing touch: Whether you do this alone, and have the ability to really give yourself a BIG hug, or if you’re mid-conversation and you need someone to hold your hand, remember that YOU can do that for yourself. Grabbing one thumb with your other hand can be super comforting, and looks very natural. A hand on your belly or heart is another great option. Soothing touch infused with a bit of self-compassion can work wonders when you’re feeling sensitive. You can give it a try right now to see what feels best. 

Ground yourself: This option is also virtually unnoticeable and can be done with or without leaving the situation. Take a moment to feel your feet on the ground, feel your bottom on the chair, feel the soothing, nurturing effect of the earth pulling you down. This is a great way to gently come back to your body when you find yourself getting emotionally overwhelmed.

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Manage expectations

You probably won’t change your uncle’s political views. You might not get that apology you’ve been waiting for. It is unlikely that you will mend a relationship that has been tense for years in one visit. Part of protecting yourself from the disappointment of an imperfect visit, is to be realistic about what is likely to happen. If you always feel annoyed with the same person, know that it will probably happen. If you always find yourself uncomfortable around a certain relative, don’t be disappointed when this time is no different. Expect, and even invite the good, the bad, the messy, and the unavoidable, and you will be less likely to find yourself crest-fallen.    

Know your limits and avoid crossing your own boundaries

Whether it’s too much of one person, a place, a situation, a substance, a type of food, smiling, small talk, or touch…know your limits. Engage when you want to, and ask for less when you need to. You are allowed to have boundaries, and you are allowed to enforce them, even if that’s not what people do in your family. It is easy to go on auto-pilot and plow through the holidays, ignoring your inner signs of irritability or fatigue. Check in with yourself often and ask, “Is this, right now, too much?” If the answer is yes, draw a boundary. Give yourself permission to step back and ask yourself what you need.

Create some mantras

Just like your self-care practices, it is helpful to have some phrases on hand to remind yourself of what you need in the moment. Make your own, or use these if they resonate with you:

I am safe.
I don’t need anyone’s approval but my own.
I release memories and feelings that no longer serve me.

I am not here to save anyone or fix anything. 
I cannot control other people’s actions; I can only control my reaction to them.
I am grateful for, and surround myself with, those I love and those that love me.

And remember, you can say no

You don’t have to go at all. Make the choice mindfully so that you aren’t going into the holiday season with resentment. If you do choose to go, don't be surprised if your buttons get pushed. Be gentle with yourself if you react. Be gentle with others if they push your buttons. Remember that even if you say yes to the visit, you can say no to any particular moment. And lastly, don’t forget to give yourself time to land, recuperate, and recharge when you return!