Does this feel familiar? You’re back home for the holidays. You wake up at noon and roll out of bed to find the coffee pot empty. You’re surprised by how outraged you feel at your brother, who most certainly took that last cup. Your mom asks you a question about your plans today and you immediately lash out, feeling defensive. You find yourself fighting with your sister over things you truly don’t care about. These are all common examples of how we backslide into our old ways when we’re back in our childhood environment.
It may be certain family members that evoke this part of yourself, or it may be only after an extended amount of time together, but we can all agree that it’s unpleasant. We tend to fall back into old family roles because our brains were wired to fill them. Some examples of these roles include the one who rescues others, the one who needs rescuing, the one who attacks, or the one who hides. Fitting into that role made you a valued member of your community and your brain will happily revert to it. But when we’ve outgrown this role, it doesn’t feel so safe anymore. In fact, it can feel akin to trying on your old high school dance team costumes – not as fun as you remember them being.
If you feel like you start to lose yourself around people from your past or you start to slide backward in places where you thought you’d made progress, you’re not alone. Therapy can be a great support, especially around the holidays, and below are a few tips to help along the way.
1. Stay tied to your new life
Bringing something from your current life can help remind you of who you are now. If you grew up in a conservative Christian household and have since moved toward another belief system, bring a small token (crystals, a book, a journal) that represents your new views. Another option is to bring a bit of work or a hobby along with you. Although work over vacation isn’t always the healthiest option, if it grounds you into your current reality instead of allowing you to spiral backward into childhood, it may be the lesser evil.
2. Stay tied to your present-day supports
Make a point of staying in regular contact with friends from adulthood while you’re visiting family. Connecting with the people in your present life can at least remind you of what your true reality is and at most provide support if something upsetting comes up.
3. Create a list of rules for yourself
Write a list of non-negotiables for your trip. If you tend to drink more than you’d like, set a hard limit for yourself. If you have trouble sleeping in your childhood bed, maybe it’s time to care for yourself by booking a hotel. If you tend to get frustrated easily with a certain family member, set rules for how often and how long you’ll interact with them so you can leave feeling proud of your actions.
4. Cling to mindfulness as your anchor
Staying present and aware of your inner experience is one of the best ways to care for yourself in potentially uncomfortable or triggering situations. If you can notice changes in your body at the first moment of emotional activation, you have a lot more time to be curious about what’s happening and how you can care for yourself before it escalates. Try a short daily mindfulness practice to work this muscle: starting with the top of your head and slowly moving down to your feet, what sensations do you notice? Pay attention to your heartbeat and muscle movements. If you feel totally relaxed, ask yourself how your body is communicating that relaxation to you. If you feel stressed, angry, tired, etc, ask yourself the same question.
5. Learn from the past
When the cool weather hits and the cozy season begins, we may feel the holiday bug and want to plan a two-week stay back home. While this may sound fun in theory, has it been life-giving in the past? No matter how close you are with your family members, leaving your current life for that long may not feel like self-care. Maybe you notice that when your partner tags along, you’re much more grounded. Do you need to try shortening your trip this year or only attending for the dates your partner can join in on? In what ways can you tweak your plans to enjoy quality time with both yourself and your loved ones?
Try these tips this season and see which ones work best for you. If you need a bit more support, contact us to set up a session with a therapist. You deserve to enjoy quality time with those you love, and we’re happy to support you along the way.