Saturday, December 11, 2010
The articles are starting to appear in print and on the Internet about how to cope with the holiday family get-togethers and the word "dysfunctional" will be bandied about.
This article is about another way of looking at things I hope will be helpful. "Dysfunction" refers to something that doesn't function the way it should; something that doesn't do what it's supposed to. "Dys" means "bad" or "difficult."
Now, unless you're a flaming extravert with a staff of 10 to help you, it may well be "difficult." Whether it will be "bad" is another matter.
Thank heavens for Positive Psychology! Barring extremes, why not assume your holiday is functioning normally, that is, like everyone else's - it isn't perfect, but it's functioning just fine.
How so? The reason we talk about "peace on earth, goodwill to men" at Christmas is because it's an ideal. We pray for it because it exists so rarely, in brief moments only, or maybe a state of the heart. It's the song the angels sing.
Let's put a new spin on this by looking at the function of a family. The function of a family is to nurture, but it's also about learning to relate and deal with emotions. It's about imperfect you learning how to co-exist with imperfect others in an imperfect world, and it's the proving ground for getting out into the real world. It's where we learn many life lessons.
Some of them are what to do when we don't get what we want, how to fight and make up, how to share and how to get our share, how to comfort or soothe someone else or ourselves, what to do when other people are angry or when we are, and how to keep loving someone when we really don't like what they're doing. In other words how to deal with the ins and outs of interpersonal relating with resilience.
And what better place to experience this than at the family get-together? It will all be there. It always is.
The only totally calm, uneventful Christmas I participated in, where there were no tiffs and sputters and frustrations, everyone was numbed from a recent tragedy and simply going through the motions. We could've been in bed asleep, except we were sitting up, walking around, and talking. No one had the energy for either joy or anger. Perspective did not allow us to be upset that year that the gravy was lumpy.
Emotions are energy. They're part of life. The only thing worse than the ones we don't like, would be having none at all.
But even that was a functional celebration. Grief-stricken, we were together for support, and we were doing what we could about Christmas, which seemed an ugly charade, and some of them will. It worked. It won't be featured on the front cover of "Saturday Evening Post," painted by Norman Rockwell, but it will remain painted in our hearts.
Positive psychology refuses to focus on what's wrong; it looks at what's right, strong, and going well. If your family is together and your sister and brother are fighting again, well didn't they always? Isn't that what siblings do? Surely they have the sense to temper it a little in light of the occasion, but if they don't, ignore it, send them outside with the dogs, use your sense of humor and EQ, and get on with your own celebration.
If you start your Christmas get-together saying, "It's Christmas, couldn't we all just get along for an hour or two? And Mother, will you please stop crying?" think about what you're requiring. Is your household one in which it's implicit that certain emotions are not welcome (anger, disappointment, fear, sorrow)?
Of course no one in their right mind would begin by saying, "Okay, everybody fight! Get ready, get set, Go!" But toy with that notion for a moment. What do you think would happen if you did? By welcoming it, you take away its power. Even if you said this to two preschoolers, they'd probably giggle.
It's traditional in my family that the kids are always sick at Christmas. We live in South Texas; it's allergy time. However, it has traveled with us as well! This is the one thing we can count on. It's also traditional that some of us are tired and overwrought, and the more highstrung ones will be decompensating. Some of the kids are this way too.
I remember one Christmas when I was a kid when my folks just suddenly brought the whole thing to a halt and put us all to bed for a nap. That's sensible!
There are other "traditions" I won't go into, but let's just say people don't leave their regular personalities at home when they venture out at Christmas time.
It may be the tradition in your household that Granny will complain about the commercialism of Christmas (she always does), Uncle Fred and Aunt Mary won't be talking to one another (they never do), and Candee will be dressed inappropriately (just to embarrass her parents). Is the further tradition that you worry about these things or in some way try to prevent them happening? That might be one tradition you'd like to change this year. You might as well try and stop the tide, and you'll only make yourself miserable about being miserable.
You could also rid your mind of the "nevers" and "always." People do surprise us. It has been said "you can't go home again" because things change. It won't be there when you get there. Maybe this year Granny will have made her peace with commercialism. Ya never know.
Am I talking about extreme circumstances and crises? They can happen too. In our minds Christmas Day is something special, but in the grand scheme of things, it's a day when things that happen on any day can happen. I know several people who, sadly, had a relative die on Christmas Day, one even right at the dinner table.
The only thing you can control - better to say "manage" - is your response to things that happen. You can't control what happens.
If things are really bad, you know it, and you need to do something about it, and I hope you will. Get therapy, prescribe therapy, don't show up, go with your loving partner on a cruise, or don't invite the cousin who needs to be in rehab and tell him why and pray for him.
But if it's like it is for most of us, somewhat unpredictable and nutty enough to be real, I hope you have a great, albeit imperfect Christmas, and keep your expectations flexible and low and your emotional intelligence high.
I'm thinking of the first Christmas after my son died. "Have a Christmas," one of my sensitive friends told me. I did. You can too.