My friend Ann Marie says that every time she goes home to visit her parents, she turns into a fifteen year old again. “It doesn’t matter that I’m forty-five, have a family of my own, and am a successful, published writer,” she tells me. “It doesn’t even matter that I don’t go back to the house I grew up in or that my parents are divorced and have new families of their own. I walk in the door to either my Mom’s or my Dad’s home, and I turn into a teenager. I lose all of my adult social graces. I’m awkward, my feelings get hurt if someone looks at me wrong, and I suddenly have a hair trigger temper again. What in the world happens to me?”
Most have us have been there. We might long to see our parents, sisters and brothers, and childhood friends; but as soon as we see them, something happens to our psyches. Without volition or thought, we suddenly become the kid we thought we had left behind forever. Freud called this kind of sudden return of a childhood self “regression” to an earlier stage of psychological development. It can be an unpleasant experience, and it often takes us completely by surprise, but it is also completely normal.
Recent neuropsychological research has given us greater understanding of this phenomenon.
According to neuropsychologist Daniel Siegel, our brains tend to respond to familiar situations and people with habitual patterns. In his book The Developing Mind, Siegel says that our neurons, which help us manage our feelings and thoughts, behave like people walking across a field of tall grass, tending to follow an established path rather than breaking through a new one. When we are with people with whom we spent a great deal of time as children, our neurons, according to Siegel, respond to the familiar voices and faces by automatically “lining up” to go down old, familiar trails.
So what to do when you’re at a family dinner and you suddenly feel like screaming at your little brother like you did when you were children – even though you’re both full-grown adults?
First, according to Daniel Goleman, who brought us the concept of “emotional intelligence,” (based, by the way, on much of the research being done in the world of neuropsychology), it’s important to understand that it’s almost impossible to change those neurons while you’re interacting with the very people with whom your brain established the original patterns. This is because our neurons are triggered by other people, and when we’re with our family, even if they have also changed, something about their physical presence will set us off on old unused roadways – and we will suddenly regress to feelings and behaviors we thought we’d left far behind us.
And second, according to Allan Schore, who has written extensively on recent findings in neuroscience, developmental theories and attachment theory, the brain is only part of the story. The other part is our need for other people – what psychotherapists today call our “relational” needs. The need to maintain relationships with people in our lives is basic to human nature. Sometimes these are living, active relationships in the here and now. And sometimes they’re old relationships that stay inside us even when the original people – including us – have changed.
Based on these findings, these (relatively) simple steps can help protect your psyche and even improve your relationships at your next family gathering.
1 – We don’t feel our neurons, but we often feel changes in our bodies before we recognize changes in our psychological state. Signs that you are regressing can be a tightening in your chest or clenching of your fists, or you may feel yourself gripping your jaw. These are physical signals of psychological shifts. As soon as you feel any of them, excuse yourself from the situation immediately. Goleman says that within twenty minutes, our brains will go to the place of no-return unless we do something to reset them. Go for a quick walk around the block, or, if that’s not possible, go to the bathroom and do this breathing exercise:
Sit with your feet firmly on the ground, your back straight, your hands relaxed in your lap.
Breathe in through your nose, slowly counting to three as you do so. Then breathe out through your mouth, again slowly counting to three. Do this four times.
Now do the same exercise, but count to four with each in breath and out breath.
Let your breath return to normal, wash your face, and go back to the group.
This brief exercise will help you re-set your brain. You can do it as many times as you need to during the course of the family get together.
2 – Call a friend for a quick check-in. You can complain if you want, but you don’t have to for this to work. Even a quick, casual chat will help, because talking to someone from your current life will help your neurons retrieve some of their healthier, adult pathways.
3 – Talk to yourself (silently, unless you’re somewhere where no one can hear you. We don’t want your family to think you’ve lost it!). Remind yourself that your parents, step-parents, siblings and step-siblings are all struggling with the same thing that you’re struggling with. Old patterns die hard. Tell yourself that if you behave differently, they’ll follow suit – eventually.
4 – Change something about your traditional ways of being in these family situations. Wear something that makes you feel good about yourself, even if it’s not exactly what the family tends to wear; or if you have always been a rebel, surprise everyone by appearing in something that fits with the family style. Bring a special food treat for everyone – something different, but healthy (so that you don’t trigger everyone’s worries about being too fat, too ugly, etc.). Or bring some favorite music and the equipment to play it (an mp3 player if there’s a way to amplify it, or even a portable cd or tape player and old beloved music on cd’s or tapes!)
5 – Bring something with you that connects you to your current life. This can be a scarf that you wear to work, a tee shirt that you got from a college buddy, or a book or picture or even a cd that you keep in your car or pocket or purse to remind you that who you are even when you regress with your family is not who you are all of the time.
Chances are that even with these techniques you will still feel like an adolescent at some time during a family get together – but they’ll help you return to your adult self more easily!
The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are by Daniel J. Siegel M.D.
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