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Surviving the Holidays

Coping with family and unfinished business

Congratulations, you did it. You survived the traffic, the tension, the family drama that each November makes so many people give thanks—that Thanksgiving is over!

But wait: the "holi-daze" have only begun. With Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year's just around the corner, 'tis the season to be cranky. And, for some, anxious, overwhelmed and even depressed. From drunken holiday parties and last-minute shopping to fraught family gatherings and feelings of loneliness, it's not always the most wonderful time of year.

Many of the season's greatest challenges involve family dynamics and unfinished childhood business. Interactions with the very parents and siblings who once failed to recognize our accomplishments, who competed with us for attention, or who forced us to grow up too quickly, can stir up long-buried feelings we thought we put behind us. How can we still be bothered by actions that took place so long ago, when time is supposed to heal all wounds?

The answer, in part, is that children are completely dependent upon their parents for guidance, nurturance and to make sense of themselves and the world. When parents too often disappoint—by reacting with anger, anxiety or disinterest, for instance—the child is left alone to figure out how to cope. A little girl who falls down and begins screaming in terror, only to be scolded, learns quickly to stuff down her feelings because they are too overwhelming and dangerous. A boy who excitedly runs to mother to share a drawing he made, only to be told, "Not now, mommy is busy!" feels shame when this happens too often, rather than a sense of confidence and spontaneity.

Without the cognitive or emotional skills to figure out what is happening, the child learns to adapt the only way she knows how, sometimes by not recognizing her pain or by becoming angry at herself, rather than her parents. In order to keep the parents as good and available in the way she needs, the child reasons that the unrecognized sides of her are bad and unacceptable and must be put away to gain mommy and daddy's acceptance.

Many people are surprised that these self expectations do not go away when they are old enough to figure them out. A belief about oneself that begins so young and out of awareness may not simply heal with time, particularly if one's coping skill is to not recognize feelings that are threatening. (In essence, we become the unrecognizing parents to ourselves.) Furthermore, we continue to play out these dramas in adulthood, finding friends and loved ones who similarly disappoint, only to reconfirm our unconscious opinion about how we will never be good enough for others. A holiday visit with parents—especially when it means a trip to the very childhood home where the pain began—can feel like pouring salt on a wound we did not even know we had.

Additionally, without realizing it, many of us still harbor unconscious fantasies of being recognized by our parents. We hope that they will finally show interest in our career, not criticize our romantic choices, and be the loving parents we always wanted. When they dash our unconscious fantasies and once again respond with condemnation or disinterest, we may again become bitterly disappointed—at our parents and even at ourselves for getting our hopes up. It's like once again running to mommy or daddy with a drawing we hope they will acknowledge, only to fail to capture their interest one more time. We feel like a hurt child again, not just because it is familiar, but because we had again dared to hope.

Sometimes this awareness can be of great use during the holidays (and throughout the year). It can help us recognize, prepare for, and ultimately let go of old wounds and fantasies. However, awareness is not always enough, particularly when harmful unconscious patterns are repeated throughout adulthood. When this is the case, psychodynamic psychotherapy can be of great use, since it can help address these issues in ways that allow us to finally feel recognized by an important other (in this case the therapist), and ultimately by ourselves.

More from Eric Sherman L.C.S.W.
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