Recovering from Family Stress

Three Valuable Techniques

Posted Dec 28, 2016

I’ve heard that 95% of us come from dysfunctional families. And around the holidays, I’ll bet the number increases. Every season I find myself wishing that I had a different family, or at least that I had married into a more functional family. No such luck. I don’t know if it is the times, the aging of family members, or the dissolution of relationships, but this year was particularly rough. Other than drink too much (yes, that spiked eggnog can be tempting), eat too much (chocolate always helps, and so what if those jeans don’t fit?), or shop too much (one for them, two for me?), how can you get through the ordeal, and more importantly, how can you recover?

 As I sit here drinking some herbal tea, glad to be home, let me share my top three techniques for managing and recovering from family stress. While always helpful during the holidays, these practices can be used for weddings, birthdays, baby or engagement showers, bar mitzvahs, graduations, funerals, obligatory phone calls, or whenever you feel trapped by family dynamics. These practices incorporate mindfulness and compassion, and also draw on clinical interventions that have helped my patients. 

Anthropologist From Mars

 This practice can help restore your sanity when your family is behaving bizarrely, (or normally for them), and pushing your buttons. If you find yourself in a situation where you can’t leave or intervene without making things worse, try imagining that you are an anthropologist visiting from Mars and taking field notes on the behavior of these curious earthlings. When the event is over, compare notes with your friends, or your therapist. This way you will get both support and perspective.

This is a helpful technique when your sister walks out in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner because suddenly her cat is sick, your stepmother berates you because you made too much noise clearing the Christmas dishes, or at your father’s funeral, well-meaning but clueless uncle Joe assures your heartbroken mother that she will meet someone “better.”

Inner Garden

 Earlier this month, I attended a workshop offered by the meditation teacher Pir Zia Inayat Khan, He taught a calming practice to use when people are angry, hostile, or aggressive toward you.

 Here is an adaptation of the meditation.

  • Take a few moments to get anchored, using the breath or the sensations of the body. You can do this either sitting or standing. Let yourself get centered. Your eyes can be open or closed. No one needs to know.
  • Visualize that you are surrounded by a beautiful, serene garden. Imagine trees, fragrant flowers and vines, perhaps some cooling water—a fountain, pond, or waterfall.
  • You can bring in cool breezes, birds, butterflies, and other animals.
  • Let yourself be surrounded and protected by this garden. It can be as large and dense as you need it to be. Make it as detailed as possible, bringing in your favorite plants and animals.
  • If someone is being aggressive toward you, demeaning or insulting you, meet their anger with the coolness, calm, and serenity of this inner garden. Visualize their words dissolving without hurting you.
  • Stay in the garden as long as you need the comfort and protection.
  • You can also return to the garden to help you recover from family stress.

I find it helpful to practice this in advance of a challenging family get-together. In mindfulness we try to respond rather than react to difficult situations. Add this meditation to your mindfulness tool kit: it is a skillful way to respond to dynamics that you can’t control or change.

Circle of Compassion

            More often than not, family dynamics don’t change. Just because you’ve had decades of therapy doesn’t mean your stepmother will suddenly, this year, treat you with kindness. Or that your sarcastic and demeaning brother will stop treating you like you’re an idiot. Forgot all those degrees and accomplishments. Sometimes when we go home for the holidays it feels like we’re children again and someone just pushed the replay button. William Faulkner got it right when he wrote, “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.”

            This is a practice that I’ve adapted from Narayan Liebenson at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. It’s a good resource when you are feeling alone, distraught, or when you wake up at 3am fuming at the way your ex or some family member has treated you. This meditation can be used in the heat of the moment as well as when you have a quiet time to sit.

  • Find a quiet place to sit, a place that feels safe and calm, even if it’s the restroom.
  • Start by thinking of someone who has been kind to you. It could be a teacher, a friend, a colleague, a grandparent or even a pet. It doesn’t need to be unconditional. Find things that are small and simple. It could be a moment when a stranger was kind, or someone let you on the highway in rush hour traffic.
  • Remember as many moments of kindness as you can. Remember, you aren’t looking for perfection, just moments of kindness and affection.
  • You can also remember moments of beauty, times when you were moved by a sunset, the majesty of mountains, the power of the ocean, the song of a bird.
  • Let yourself be surrounded by this circle of kindness and compassion. Feel yourself held and loved in this circle. Draw some sustenance from it. If you like, let the circle expand until it becomes a village of compassion.
  • Let this goodness counteract whatever sorrow or suffering you are facing right now.
  • Try these phrases of loving-kindness and compassion that are an antidote to family dysfunction: This is a difficult time. This is hurtful. It is hard to be in this family. Let me be kind to myself and remember those who have been kind to me. This holiday/event/conversation will pass. Let me be resilient.

Hopefully some of these practices will be useful for you, for your friends, or for those you love.

In difficult times, I return to a story that a wise old woman told me when I was a child. One day, the story goes, the Buddha was teaching in a village and he wandered into the fields of a farmer. The farmer became furious, berating him, spitting on him, and abusing him. The Buddha remained calm. “Sir, he said, “what if someone offers you a gift and you don’t accept it?” The farmer looked confused, shook his head and replied, “then it isn’t yours if you don’t take it.” “Well,” the Buddha replied, I return your gift.”

So remember, in this holiday season, that many types of gifts can be returned.

Psychologist Susan Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., co-author of the book Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy, (Guilford Press) has been teaching and supervising at Harvard Medical School for over twenty years.