The timing of this post is no coincidence. As we in the United States are nearing our annual Thanksgiving celebration, it is also a season when some of us are feeling anxious about spending time with extended family and friends. And this is about protecting your heart in those situations.
Many folks, of course, have loving, supportive, nurturing families, and the opportunity to get together with them for the holiday season is something they look forward to with excitement and anticipation. But for others of us, the idea of getting together with our extended family leaves us tense and upset, and our approach is more like, “Let’s get this over with.” If you find yourself in the latter bunch, this post is for you.
There are several variations on this theme, across a spectrum that ranges from families that are blatantly abusive to those that can manage to put the “fun” in dysfunctional, and not everyone who has a difficult family needs to figure out how to navigate get-togethers with them in a way that protects their own heart. But difficult holidays are so universal, they’re often the stuff of movies and sitcoms. Family functions can be difficult even when we are feeling our best. And it’s not always as funny in real life. So if your heart is feeling anxious at the thought of gathering around the family table, I hope this will help.
Also, just because it’s a Thanksgiving tradition, I want to use Charlie Brown and Lucy to illustrate my point. You know these two, right? And the interaction they have with each other every time there’s a football around? Here’s a little clip if you’re not familiar with them.
Keep these two in mind and think about the fact that this situation has played out for them countless times over the history of the Peanuts comics. The dialogue may be different, but the end result is the same. Every single time.
Below are three steps that you may find helpful if your heart needs some extra protection this holiday season. You may feel sad that holidays are not the way you envisioned they would be – one big happy extended family laughing and playing and having a wonderful time being together. It’s okay to feel sad about that and grieve that. Accept what it is for now and maybe some day, it can be what you hoped, if everyone learns to relate to each other in a healthy way. But that takes a willingness on everyone’s part, which can mean doing some really hard work and being honest about what problems may exist in the family dynamic. And not everyone even sees a problem with the way things are. So this is about what you can do to care for yourself.
LISTEN TO YOURSELF
We all have a built-in radar system for situations that are not good for us. Often our bodies know when something is wrong before our minds and hearts do, especially if we have learned to ignore our needs or that someone else’s feelings are more important than our own. Listen to your body. Sit with the thought of going to see Aunt Mabel or Cousin John, or whoever your “Lucy” (or Lucys) may be. Charlie Brown’s radar was working. Before he kicked the ball, he knew Lucy wasn’t going to hold it. His warning signals were reminding him about what happened the times before. When days before spending time with your Lucy find you grinding your teeth or feeling anger or anxiety that seems out of place, take a minute and think about what those kinds of interactions are usually like. Do they build you up or tear you down? Can you be yourself or do you feel like you have to put on a facade? Are you looking forward to the gathering or dreading it? Does it take time to psych yourself up for the meetup and then time to decompress and process what happened afterward? There’s a reason for it. Healthy relationships aren’t usually like that. I had years of migraines and teeth grinding and pits in my stomach surrounding interactions with my Lucys. I had no idea they were related until a counselor asked me about them. Now I pay attention to those signals. Your body knows. LISTEN to what it is telling you.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
This one is even harder to do because some of us are so used to putting other people’s needs and wants before our own. If we grew up in dysfunction, with someone’s addiction or mental illness or need for control as the center of our world, then it’s even harder. We have been trained that that person comes first, and we can read their tone of voice, their body language, even a glance, and know when they are not pleased with us and we had better get in line. It leaves us feeling on edge. But when we are married and/or have children, we need to take care of them first, not our Lucy. They are our priority. And we need to take care of ourselves, emotionally and physically, to be able to care for them and to meet their needs. This is the biggest lesson I have learned in life – we cannot love others if we do not love ourselves. We cannot take care of others if we do not take care of ourselves.
Taking care of yourself could mean not kicking the ball offered by your Lucy, in whatever form you need that to be. Not all of our Lucys are abusive or malignant. They don’t all lie or let us down so thoroughly and completely as Charlie Brown’s does. Some of them just poke at us a bit or criticize us a little. But remember, we are still healing from the ultimate wound – the loss of our children. Our hearts are hurting and tender. Maybe some of us never healed completely from wounds that predate our losses. And when you have an unhealed wound, even a little poke can feel excruciating. When you have a sunburn, even a little heat from the sun that you usually enjoy can feel unbearable. Healing takes time, and it can’t happen if we keep getting re-injured. You have to decide how not kicking the ball looks for you. Maybe it means just keeping your spouse nearby at a gathering so that you’re not left alone with your Lucy. Maybe it means staying in a different room from your Lucy. Maybe it means changing the venue. Or maybe it means saying no to the gathering altogether. Only you can decide that; no one else will be able to do it for you. And whatever you decide for this year doesn’t have to be the way it always is. Your needs can change. And your boundary can change. You are allowed to do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself.
Imagine what would happen if Charlie Brown told Lucy, “No thanks, Lucy. I don’t want to play this time.” Or even, “How about if I hold the ball and you kick it instead?”
This is the hardest step for me, but it gets easier with practice. Setting a boundary where there hasn’t been one in the past feels terrifying, especially if you grew up in dysfunction. Several people may grumble about your decision, not just your Lucy, and it’s hard to feel confident that you’re doing the right thing for yourself when others are complaining. Remember how Lucy enticed Charlie Brown into kicking the ball in the video above? “Come on, Charlie Brown! It’s tradition.” It’s what we do! We don’t want to be accused of being the fun-wreckers. But who, exactly, is having the fun? Charlie doubted his inner voice that said not to kick the ball and was disappointed again. Disappointments are part of life, but when they happen over and over, a lot of small disappointments can build up to create resentment and frustration. We can’t expect Lucy not to be Lucy. The only one we can change is ourselves.
If you grew up in a religious home like I did, then there may be undertones of “faith-based” guilt and manipulation when you try to set your boundary. I put faith-based in quotes because using faith to manipulate someone into staying in a situation that doesn’t feel safe is not faith at all. Accusations of being “unforgiving,” “unchristian,” “unloving,” or “keeping records of wrongs” may be used against you for trying to take care of yourself. And they may pique your conscience because you, of course, do not want to be any of those things. But who of us doesn’t wish Charlie Brown would just tell Lucy no? And what kind of person would call Charlie Brown unforgiving for doing so? Healthy people respect others’ boundaries, and when they’ve hurt someone, they make amends. Even if you set your boundary in a messy way, or you set it too firm, or you just approached it all wrong because you don’t have a lot of practice….that’s okay. TRUST YOURSELF. The boundary can be moved later if you want it to be. It can be less rigid – more of a semi-permeable membrane if you feel comfortable with that down the road. Or it can be a brick wall with barbed wire at the top that it is absolutely unacceptable for anyone to cross again ever. But wherever you’re asking for it to be right now is where it needs to be. If people are having trouble with that, or are asking for an explanation, you can choose to give one or not give one, but if you’ve listened to yourself and recognize that there needs to be a boundary, if you’ve set it in a way that protects your heart and those people you need to care for, then trust yourself that you’ve done the right thing for you right now.
I hope these three things will help you to protect your heart if you are feeling uneasy about a family gathering this year. Healing takes time, and you are allowed to do what feels safe for you while you heal.
Wishing you a peaceful and happy Thanksgiving!
Heart bokeh photo courtesy of Andrey Gorshkov