The holiday season is a special time. For eating too much, drinking too much, stressing out over gifts and sending out Christmas cards. In short, an ambivalent time for people. There’s a lot of pressure to have Hallmark-perfect family gatherings full of love and fellowship and merry memory making. The reality however oftentimes involves one or more of the following: a critical mother, deadbeat dad, alcoholic older brother, a vindictive ex-wife, spoiled children who feel entitled, and siblings whose rivalry matches that between the Steelers and Ravens.
Granted, my family is only mildly dysfunctional in the grand scheme of things. We’re more annoying and mean and quirky than fit for a reality television series. It’s just enough batshit crazy to drive me crazy though.
The last few years I’ve repeated a helpful mantra in my head, reminding myself I need not attend every argument I’m invited to. That reminder has saved me a great deal of grief in all realms of my life. Yet a part of me still dreaded long visits with my immediate family. Don’t get me wrong, I love them. I’m also deeply ambivalent about them. Because we’re all messy, and family dynamics are messy and complicated and wrought with deep emotions and wrongs from years past.
I never know what to expect. I’m the black sheep of the family for several reasons. I’d like to think it’s because I’m the healthiest, non-crazy person in the family. They would likely beg to differ. Regardless, sometimes the visits are lovely and kind and gentle. Other times the hostility and unmet expectations and judgments are felt from the first hello.
The last few years I’ve tried to break old family dynamics and re-create my role in the family. At first, I tried to kindly point out the mean-spirited comments, the judgments, the scapegoating. Let me tell you, that did not go over well. I was reminded that no one takes advantage of therapeutic services if they did not seek those services in the first place.
Then I learned to take better care of myself by not engaging as much in the old family dynamics. The intent is good. The execution, however, only successful half the time. But even when I was able to not engage, I still felt cut off from the family. Because well, I wasn’t engaging. I would walk away or stay away to avoid falling into old dynamics.
So both of those tactics are successful in my self-care. But I realized I was still left feeling not fulfilled with the situation. This Christmas season, a light bulb went off. I realized I wasn’t engaging so I wasn’t connecting. And really, isn’t that what fulfilling relationships are about–the connecting? The validating of who you are as a person. The sharing of thoughts and beliefs and opinions that form conversations. The experiencing of activities and events. Isn’t that what fills our souls?
So this year I made a concerted effort, difficult as it was, to remain in rooms and with conversations I did not agree with. My family is very good with flinging judgments about, complaining about things they have no control over, discussing plans they will never act on. They’re very good at critiquing and blaming and passive-aggressive acts and backhanded compliments. They’re masters of creating competitions about well, everything. Those things drive me to drink.
So I learned to stop trying to point out logic or other ways to view the world. I learned instead to sit side-by-side with them. And listen. And bite my tongue until it bled. I smiled and nodded. Not because I agreed with them. But because I love them and see who they are in their messiness and still love them. Because at this ripe old age of 41, I value the connections with my family more than trying to improve their messy selves.
I’ve realized it’s better for me to be kind than right. I realized it’s not about me. I didn’t need to point out more constructive ways to cope with their problems. I didn’t need to argue their judgments. I also don’t need to agree with them in order for me to sit with them. To be with them. To share space with them. To share my life with them. To connect with them. I’ve realized that simply put, my brand of messy is different than their brand of messy. And that’s OK. It doesn’t have to be the same. It’s enough that we connect with our different brands of messy.
Because really, isn’t that we want for ourselves? For connecting with people. For people to see who we are in our judgments and failures and flaws, and still love us? For people to value being kind to us over being right and us wrong?
And I’ve found that in these moments of connection, mutual kindness blossoms. Sometimes. Before one of us opens our big mouths and proves to be human once again.
Let me be clear also that I”ve learned that certain people earn their right to hear my story, my whole story. I’ve learned good boundaries, and what to share with whom. I may not be able to share my entire story to my family for self-preservation, but that doesn’t negate the love we feel for each other. Love is different than like. Some moments I like them. Others, not so much. But I’ve learned to stop expecting them to be who they are not. I’ve stopped hoping for a different childhood. I’ve stopped hoping for their agreement on how I view life. In such, I’ve found peace.
In taking the extra step of taking the initiative to engage with them, where they’re at in their own lives, I’ve found a renewed connection. Is it perfect? No. And none of us are. I may be the black sheep of the family, but none of the white sheep are snow white either.