Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

But I've Changed

I've changed, but adult sibling conflicts often replay childhood.

Have you ever seen those pictures in which adults recreate some childhood family photo? They start with a classic family picture, find clothes that mirror what they wore as children, and stand in the same postures in the same location. That is what memory is like. We constantly recreate the child in our adult relatives. We see the adult, but we also see the child. And sometimes we treat each other like the people we used to be even though we’ve all changed.

Thanksgiving is past and Christmas is coming. I look forward to being with my family again, but I always find the days leading up to the holidays a bit nerve-wracking, a little anxiety provoking. I worry that something will go wrong and we won’t actually get along. I didn’t always get along with my sister when we were young, so it seems reasonable to worry about being with my family.

Of course, I shouldn’t worry because we’re adults now and we won’t fight those old battles again. I’ve changed. I’m not the same person I used to be. My sister has changed as well.

But here’s the problem. When we see each other, we see the people we used to be. We see the adult, but we also see the child. We remember our childhood squabbles and tortures. None of us have let go of our memories. We all know how we used to interact with each other and sometimes we replay the old roles. That’s why I started by thinking about those pictures in which adults recreate some childhood family photo? That is what memory is like. We constantly recreate the child in our adult relatives. This contributes to some of the anxiety and difficulty of spending a holiday with your family, even if you really love them.

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I really have changed and I’m pretty happy about most of the changes too. Yes I’m getting older and slower, achier, and creakier. So not all the changes are great. But I’m not the obnoxious smart-aleck I was when I was an adolescent. I could be really obnoxious. I was also incredibly impatient. I’ve calmed and mellowed as I’ve matured. I’m not claiming to be calm, mellow, or mature; but I’m more of those qualities than I used to be.

I’m not the only person who’s changed. My sister has grown through the challenges she’s faced in her life. She not the same person I disliked when I was that obnoxious youth. Most of my relatives have become better people than seemed possible when we were kids.

But who do I see when I see my sister? What do I remember about our lives together? Our memories seem stuck in the teenager years. I’m not surprised that our memories are stuck there. We didn’t even live in the same state for more than 30 years. We saw each other once each year, maybe. So when I think about interacting with my sister, I think about those difficult interactions from childhood and adolescence. I’m pretty sure that when she thinks about me, she remembers her obnoxious little brother. I’m sure she also sees me as I am today, but that is a shallow veneer laid over 20 years of conflict.

The problem runs deeper than just how we see each other. The adult sibling problems also occur because of how I know people used to see me. I over-interpret what people do and say sometimes. Is that person still treating me like the obnoxious smart-aleck? People often expect you to behave the way you used to behave. At the family holiday dinner, does everyone turn toward you expectantly sometimes? They are looking for you to perform your classic role, the one you played as a child. Are you supposed to be first through the buffet line? Are you the one who is expected to argue politics? Are you the one expected to bring up old family stories? Are they waiting for you to beg them not to tell that old story again? Everyone expects you to behave the way you used to behave. They ask you what’s wrong if you skip out on your classic routines.

But what if you’re tired of being the child or the teenager? What if you are ready for people to start seeing the adult you’ve become?

Changing family roles isn’t easy when you are fighting a lifetime of experience. In my family, this can be hard when you only gather once or twice a year. I think it may be especially challenging in the traditional family gatherings around holidays. Everything is traditional. The same food is prepared and the same dishes are used. People may even sit at the same places around the table. We often replay the old conversations. It’s easy to fall back into the old behavior patterns.

Changing how people see you requires changing how you behave. Drop the old fights. Drop the old behaviors. Be the adult you. Don’t treat your siblings as the children they were either. Treat them as the adults they’ve become. Talk with them about their current concerns. I talk less about our shared childhood and more about what has happened in the last year. It is important to tell some old family stories because that is part of reconnecting with family and friends. But it doesn’t all have to be about the things that happened 20, 30, and 50 years ago.

I’ve found in the last several family meals that I’ve often been anxious about interacting with relatives. But since we’ve been seeing each other more frequently, we have a lot more to talk about than simply replaying the past. My concerns haven’t been realized. Instead our base of love and concern allows us to interact nicely as adults. I’m less likely to see the teenager in my sister and more likely to see the adult she’s become. I think we are finally treating each other as adults instead of teenagers.

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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