In families, we learn to play a role that other family members facilitate and shape. They do this by sending sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit messages about the performance of self that we are trying to pull off. Our role becomes interconnected with the performance of complementary roles played by other family members, just as surely as a performance of Othello will cultivate and require performances of Desdemona, Iago, and Cassio. If the actor playing Iago suddenly decides that Iago is a sweetheart, the other actors will set him straight, not only in explicit feedback between scenes but also by reacting as if he is untrustworthy even when he says his lines sweetly. Meanwhile, we are reacting to other family members, shaping the roles they play in our own reactions.
Roles change. This is most obvious when children get older. A prior mastery of how to be a baby doesn’t fit the child after a year or two, and she must learn a new role; as Wordsworth put it, “with new joy and pride, the little actor cons another part.” Roles also change because little brothers who become Marines don’t like being the butt of jokes any longer, because daughters with doctoral degrees bristle at having everything explained to them, and because spouses who have been cheated on want to act as if they are sexually desirable and not off the dating market.
A major source of stress in life comes from finding yourself in a role you can’t pull off. Having too much work to do undermines the role of efficient worker, excellent student, and easygoing adult. A deteriorating kitchen undermines the role of homemaker or successful provider. A period of unemployment undermines the role of someone who made the right choice about attending graduate school. These situations are equivalent to learning that you will be performing the part of Antony or Cleopatra tonight on national television. Many psychological and psychosomatic symptoms are attempts to escape such a situation. Many roles become impossible to pull off because we try to perform them perfectly, and much of what occurs in psychotherapy is the development of reasonable standards, an acceptance of what is possible. It’s neurotic to attempt a role that is bound to fail, such as an angel, saint, lion, sheep, superhero, or mystic.
At holiday gatherings, old roles are expected, but people don’t want to play them; new roles are desired by the actors, but the system may not accommodate them. The brilliant new physicist finds that no one is interested in her research program; they respond much more comfortably if she drops the casserole. Mom used to enjoy churning out huge quantities of food and cleaning up afterward, but the role has lost its appeal with adult children and their spouses drinking and talking while she does it instead of school-age children playing Twister. Dad’s performance of expert on all things political is less charming now that the kids have all been to college and met actual experts. New parents expect to be in charge of their children, but their own parents look at them and see the toddlers they once were.
The same strategies that take the edge off stress in one’s personal life can make holiday gatherings more pleasant. These amount to concentrating on mutual enjoyment rather than achievement, although bonhomie can be a bitter pill for anyone trying to be a saint or a mystic. Still, buying presents is like public speaking. The receiver can’t help but hope for something wonderful, and the giver wants to provide it but doesn’t know how. The one member of the family truly skilled at gift-giving likes exchanging presents, but for everyone else, it’s a chance to fail. In my wife’s family, you bring a pair of outlandish socks and everyone goes home with a pair. It’s fun, and no one feels as if they are a bad gift giver; no one feels disappointed with what they got, either.
Laughing at yourself works in your personal life, and laughing at your family reduces holiday stress. Some people can’t do this, because they are acutely aware of real or imagined losses, or they are trying to be a mystic or saint or social reformer. These people can be engaged in short spurts. In fact, a good way to manage the stress that attends an impossible or undesirable performance is to keep it short. If you talk to your uncle for an hour and he doesn’t ask you a single question about your own life, it can start to wear on you. But for five minutes—well, that’s how cocktail parties work, and there’s a good reason for it. People can comfortably play the role of party-goer for a time, but after a while, more personal elements of any role want a hearing. Every actor wants to put her own stamp on a part, eventually. Party behavior recognizes it’s not going to happen, but it works only if interchanges are brief.
It can help to have an audience of your own, a spouse or sibling or friend who can witness the role you are in. Instead of being the “clumsy daughter back from college,” a friend or spouse can help you play the role of “brilliant physicist attending a family dinner,” simply by observing and recognizing what you’re up to. Of course, your family may smell a rat and force you to renounce the brilliant physicist part, and then the stress becomes overwhelming.
So I don’t have an easy solution, but recognizing that holiday stress is a performance problem might help you limit the amount of time you have to suppress your conflictual roles. It can also spur you to create moments when your preferred role is welcome with sympathetic people. You might also take advantage of the roles that are available, even if they are not your preferred ones. These often include “family member” and “convivial participant” among the folks who know you best.