Part Four: Avoid Your Family Over the Holiday Season. Here’s How.
David and Tara* were a young couple with a lovely baby daughter, Tiffany. They both held stable jobs—David as a lawyer, Tara as a dental technician—and they shared a happy and loving relationship. In the life they’d created for themselves in DC, they couldn’t be more contented. So how did they come to find themselves sitting across from a concerned psychiatrist, bodies tensed and fraught with emotion? Two words: David’s in-laws (aka “the Outlaws”). David came to see me first, complaining of social anxiety. He cited his law firm as a source of the problem: They had begun putting more pressure on him to attend networking events, which filled him with absolute dread. But as we dug deeper, I discovered that his anxiety stemmed from something much deeper… something many of us feel is so unavoidable that we must bury our feelings or strive to suppress them at all costs: Visiting his wife’s family was an absolutely harrowing experience for David, and it was beginning to cause marital strife between him and his wife, who loved her family. David had some underlying anxiety issues to be sure, but as he began blowing off steam about his wife’s relatives, I started to wonder: Could David and Tara’s visits to his in-laws be a form of self-sabotage… like choosing to remain a participant in one’s own nightmares?
This holiday season, like all those that came before, you’re sure to see plenty of headlines in the news about how to celebrate family—or, perhaps, how to tolerate them. And yet, our extended families are so often the source of deep emotional pain. Many of us believe we must live with this pain, but in this blog, I’d like to propose a third option: If your family is hurting you, minimize your time with them or avoid seeing them altogether. Period.
If this advice seems crazy or out of reach, I hope David and Tara’s story will illustrate why it may be necessary, and easier than you might think. I asked David to invite Tara to our next session, so we could explore the possibility of self-sabotage further. As it turned out, Tara’s family was taking a toll on both of them in different ways. Tara’s family lived in Boston, so when they visited, they often stayed for multiple days in her parents’ house. When her family came to visit them in DC, they would stay at their house for prolonged periods of time. Maintaining close quarters for days on end with anyone can be difficult—but David and Tara’s problems were compounded by her abusive father. David had been aware of his verbal abuse of Tara since they began dating. Her father clearly and vocally favored Tara’s younger sister over her, and openly referred to her as prettier, smarter, and more talented when their extended family would get together. He mocked Tara’s decision to pursue her current career rather than applying to dental school to become a “real professional,” and would often make fun of Tara over the dinner table, at times causing her to excuse herself in tears. The harsh words even extended to David, who had to listen patiently one night as Tara’s father told him he was not making enough money, and should be more ambitious. Tara’s father was intimidating, and nobody in the family felt they could tell him to keep his mouth shut—they had to bear the abuse in silence. David knew this would be a lifelong problem for him and his wife when, on the night of their wedding, his new father-in-law pulled him close and whispered, “I don’t know what you see in Tara—good luck to you.” David could take the words directed towards him, although it was difficult—but when it came to insulting his life partner, he wanted to punch his father-in-law’s lights out.
When Tiffany was born, she was an incredible joy in their life—but her birth also inevitably introduced some complexities: Tara’s parents wanted to see the new baby as much as they could, yet the prospect of being in the same room with Tara’s father was beginning to cause David uncontrollable anxiety. When they told me they’d be spending a full week at Tara’s parents’ house for Christmas, I felt nauseated as I remembered how much I hated spending a prolonged period in my own parents’ home over the holidays: the dread I had felt in advance, and the relief I felt when I returned to my own home. I was worried this usually happy family was close to reaching a breaking point, that self-sabotage was becoming marital-sabotage, and something had to change—fast.
My focus for every patient is to do whatever it takes to treat the whole person, not just one specific part. I also don’t believe in band-aid solutions—to truly resolve an issue, a physician or psychiatrist cannot simply treat the symptom of a larger problem. With that in mind, I prescribed propranolol for David’s anxiety, which could be taken on an as-needed basis in advance of triggering events (unlike an SSRI, which can really help reduce anxiety but must be taken daily). I also knew that we’d have to address the larger issues triggering that anxiety through talk therapy. The primary issue when it came to family was this: Tara was continually abused by her father, but she refused to minimize visits. David, on the other hand, was forced to watch her father’s abhorrent behavior cause his beloved wife pain—over and over and over. He wouldn’t take it anymore. In our sessions, the three of us would have to begin to understand how to move forward.
Many of us believe that family visits are inevitable, obligatory. They’re among the shoulds that can govern our lives, and we may believe that we have become immune to them. But this pattern of passive acquiescence may become detrimental to our mental health, and to important love relations in our lives. If we believe that these visits simply represent an obligation, a time blocked out in our schedule, then why is it that so many of us return from extended family visits with such emotional heartache? In truth, family visits can be among the most vulnerable times in our life—so unspeakably vulnerable that we try to hide those tender feelings under a hard shell of cynicism or indifference. Tears are replaced with eye rolls and shrugs. These may be coping mechanisms, but to grow emotionally we cannot go through life throwing a blanket over our deepest feelings. Vulnerability is part of being human.
As human beings, we long to be understood. We want to be seen by our partners and friends for who we really are, and we seek out those who mirror the way we see ourselves, or want to see ourselves. We want to be loved wholly and unconditionally—and, reader, it is my belief that this is something we all genuinely deserve. And yet, we might call into question a commonly held assumption that those who raised us are the ones most likely to see us for our fullest selves. And because of this, if we don’t experience this love and validation from our parents we refuse to let go, as hope springs eternal. If we just wait long enough, or try harder to please them (like bringing a new baby into the world), eventually they will love us. But, as Tara’s experience illustrates, this is not healthy nor is it realistic. It is a pattern of self-sabotage that can be largely unconscious, stemming from the yearnings most of us have that somehow an unloving parent will eventually come to love us, treat us with respect, know us deeply as real people, and treat us with empathy and compassion. Many of us are infected with this notion, and it may bring us years of unnecessary emotional pain when we refuse to grieve, give up the longings, and move on.
As a self-saboteur, Tara was playing out a narrative in her head about why her father was behaving in a particular way. She held onto the emotionally devastating belief that, if only she acted differently, she might be able to tap into some hidden place in his heart that would finally cause him to be more loving or fond of her. Reader, if you take nothing else away from this blog, please remember this: Such a belief is not based in reality. If her story feels like yours, this may be a painful moment of truth for you, too. But it is one that you can begin to heal from once you can acknowledge its truthfulness. Sometimes, the people we love do not return love in the way we need it. If this happens within the context of a relationship we have chosen, we can walk away. Because we can’t easily walk away from family, we may pretend otherwise. And carry on in pretend relationships that will never change.
Tara would continually reach out to her father, only to be repeatedly shut down. This had eventually instilled in her a feeling of learned helplessness, that no matter what she did, their relationship would never get better. This contradictory set of emotions—the belief that she’d somehow elicit a soft spot for herself in her father’s heart, paired with the reality that nothing she ever did worked—is part of what makes self-sabotage so exhausting, and so devastating. In parallel, David was suffering social defeat stress, bringing symptoms of anxiety or depression to someone who is continually affronted by a bully or abuser. By the time he came to me, David felt hopeless about his relationship with his in-laws, and that he and Tara would remain forever “trapped.” Luckily, he was wrong.
Can you avoid seeing your family for the holidays? Maybe not. But if they cause emotional pain, don’t be afraid to take steps to minimize the interaction with them. Tara and David were dreading their week-long visit with Tara’s father and family—but they were also planning on staying in the same house with them. I asked Tara and David if they might revise their holiday plans for Boston. I wondered, “What about limiting the visit to three days, and staying in a nearby hotel? If things get too bad at the family homestead, you can quickly escape to the hotel, and one of you could watch Tiffany while the other gets a spa treatment, works out in the gym, or swims in the indoor pool. And vice versa!” They both looked terrified as soon as I raised this possibility, yet the more we discussed it, the more excited they became.
And so, they followed my advice, and after the holidays returned to see me looking jubilant. The plan had worked! On the first day Tara’s father had once again behaved abominably, and with Tiffany in tow the couple immediately returned to the hotel for a relaxing afternoon and evening. The next day, when they returned to the parental home, Tara’s father was surprisingly subdued, and barely spoke the entire time.
Begin to Heal
Our Declaration of Independence grants us “unalienable rights” to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Why shouldn’t these rights extend to family get-togethers over the holidays, or for that matter, at any time of the year? Here are some questions to ask yourself, and discuss with your life partner (if applicable), to determine if you are a Self-Saboteur when it comes to your relations with your family:
- Does my family add to or subtract from my happiness in life?
- Does “hope spring eternal” for me too? Does it lead to self-sabotage when I am around my family, in the form of anxiety, depression, or excessive alcohol intake?
- How much time becomes too much time when I visit them?
- Who are the main trouble makers, and how can I keep a distance from them, or ignore their comments, when I visit?
- If they live out of town, is there an affordable hotel where I can stay, providing a much-needed escape valve when necessary?
- How can I reevaluate my entire relationship with them, in the context of my unalienable rights?
- Before and after my visit with family, who would be a good listener for me to emotionally ventilate about what I am feeling? Who would understand and give me support?
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*Although lessons learned from the treatment of actual patients are included in the patient stories on this website and blogsite, the historical events and facts represented have been changed to protect the identities of any real patients and to protect their confidentiality. For example, the names, ages, careers, the number and sex of their children, as well as the careers of the patients’ parents have been deliberately altered, as well as other alterations that have been made. Consequently, all characters appearing on these sites are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.