When the holiday season rolls around, those of us who left home are beckoned back, and for better or worse, our family dynamics are there waiting for us.
Family can be wonderful, but it can also be complicated and triggering. No one gets under your skin quite like the ones you share skin DNA with.
Even if there’s a lot of love to go around, there can be a lot of tension too.
Throw Covid, mask wearing, Donald Trump, race issues and the rest of the things that made 2020 an emotional dumpster fire into the mix? Engaging self-destruct mode in 3, 2, 1…
Some families are able to talk through difficult things in a kind and respectful manner. Some are not.
This article is for those of us who have families who are not.
Rob Bell says that family pushes our buttons because they’re the ones who installed them. When it comes to handling triggering situations and difficult emotions, family is the last frontier for a reason.
I’ve struggled with this a lot as an adult.
In order to spend time with my family, I’ve had to learn how to interact without being triggered into a shame spiral, a passive aggressive comment or a heated argument.
Nine out of ten times, I revert back to the angry teenager who felt voiceless and plucked her eyebrows into oblivion, but with a proper back up plan, I think I’ve got better odds.
Every family has their thing. Mine has always been plagued by an abundance of fiery, out-of-balance masculine energy.
There were tons of boys in my house growing up. Each of my three brothers had a cult-like following, so on any given weekend, they’d double or triple their numbers.
Testosterone and weird smells and tallywhackers galore.
It played out in a variety of positive ways too. I was fearless and outspoken, and I’m rarely intimidated, a trait that’s been a mixed bag over the years.
Like when a young male friend of my dad’s told my 5th grade self that I was annoying, I waited for him to turn around and threw cat food at the back of his head.
To clarify, refusing to be intimidated is the adult version of throwing cat food.
Early on, this masculine energy was so strong that I decided to become a boy too. I wanted a danger noodle to call my own.
I knew I didn’t have a penis, I was regularly reminded of this with all of the other dingalings hanging around…and the fact that I was never allowed to enter the treehouse. “Boys only,” they said, “you’re too small anyway.”
They were right, but I kept trying.
I swam in shorts instead of bathing suits. I spit into the carpet and kicked it in to make it “disappear” like my oldest brother. I tried to go to the bathroom standing up, and when that got messy, I sat facing the back of the toilet. I would even go to the bathroom outside like they did.
One time, a friend of my brother’s named Paul spotted me going from the basketball court—packed with five or six other sweaty eighth graders—and announced, “Oh my god, dude! Your sister’s peeing!”
Right there in that high grass, mid-squat, something in me died. Paul killed it.
My wishful, willy-wanting heart was broken. I wasn’t one of them. I never would be. And as I got older, my futile efforts would result in public ridicule.
Since I couldn’t be one of them, I spent my childhood and adolescence playing by their rules instead. I learned that:
- Anything can be done competitively.
- If there is something you don’t want to talk about, ignore it. It will disappear like carpet spit.
- To be seen or listened to, say something funny or bake something delicious. Otherwise, remain invisible…until you’re engaged in a competition. But you probably won’t be because “you’re too small anyway.”
As an adult, I’ve identified these three things as family triggers to keep an eye on. They push my buttons because they installed them.
There’s so much to dig into when it comes to family dynamics. It takes a lot of time, counseling, and space to wrap your head around it all.
In the meantime, we’re not hopeless. Before we totally understand the complex histories and emotions at play, our families are going to trigger us.
That’s why we need backup plans for when we return home for Christmas…backup plans that don’t involve losing it like an eyebrow-less teenager.
Backup Plan One: Disengage.
This is hard for my competitive wiring because I have to acknowledge that I’m not Ghandi-level grounded enough to sit at the kitchen table and stay calm while a family member perpetuates a conspiracy theory that they heard from a friend who read it on Facebook yesterday.
In a perfect world, after many years of therapy and self-growth books, I would stay calm and ask questions that are so well-articulated and thought provoking that their answers would enlighten everyone present.
The questions would sound like, “How does it make you feel to share that information? Can you refer me to the credible source where you learned it? Why do you think you feel compelled to perpetuate this in the absence of certainty and at the expense of truth?”
I wouldn’t roll my eyes, I wouldn’t laugh, I wouldn’t even argue my point with a bulleted list of credible data references.
But I’m not there this year, so when I feel triggered, my move will be to disengage. I’ll stay quiet or excuse myself entirely.
One day, the true calm will come. I’ll inch closer and closer to groundedness…but if I’m lucky, Paul will show up before then so I can publicly ridicule him back.
Backup Plan Two: Talk one-on-one.
When you can’t disengage, there will be moments that require a little bit more.
Ok, a lot more.
Feeling provoked in the moment and disengaging is one thing, planning ahead to have a conversation with a triggering person is another.
If someone in your family is especially triggering and you’re able to identify why, plan ahead to approach that person in an intentional way.
Identify your ask, keep it simple, and wrap it in love.
Does your dad’s mention of politics explode your brain? First, ask him to please not bring up the topic around you. Then, explain that it creates a division where you only want there to be peace because you love and respect him.
Does your sister talk to you like you’re ten? First, tell her how it makes you feel. Then, ask her to be aware of it because you admire her and want to have a close relationship.
When you can see the triggers coming from a mile away, slow their roll with a little can we talk alone for a minute? Who doesn’t love hearing that question?
Backup Plan Three: Analyze.
It’s not enough to recognize that you’ve been triggered, you need to identify why it happened in the first place.
Find a quiet moment to reflect on what happened. Journal, meditate, google funny words for penis or do whatever you need to feel like yourself again.
If you’re able to analyze and understand your triggers, you’ll eventually become less triggered…and isn’t that the goal here?
There’s something about being a part of a family that pressures us to participate in every function and dysfunction mindlessly, so taking the time to analyze each triggering moment is important.
You’re more in control than you think you are. Unless you turn your back on a 5th grader with a handful of cat food.
Even the most loving families can be triggering, but if you have a backup plan for those moments, you can avoid unnecessary conflict and tension.
Your groundedness will benefit everyone in the long run.
This Christmas, even though it’s been a raging dumpster fire of a year, you can trust yourself. When the triggers are too much, you’ve got a backup plan. Unless Paul shows up, then all bets are off.