It’s that Time of Year when Anxieties Appear

Holiday happiness is often driven by soaring expectations about the seasonal festivities ahead. These events, combined with already-busy schedules, can confound even the best of intentions. The 4 Rs Model is helpful when coping with unexpected pressures.

“Home for the holidays” is a phrase that evokes poignant feelings and the promise of comfort and joy. For many the holiday season, with its implied requirement of Good Cheer, awakens feelings associated with the childhood game “Musical Chairs” where efforts to stay in the activity are upended time and again, as one struggles not to be excluded.

  • Maybe this year the holidays can be carefree and easy … think those challenged by sorrow, physical or emotional distress, addiction, or family misfortune or tragedy.  
  • Maybe this year the holidays will be different …hope those burdened by outdated family roles, expectations, and grudges.
  • Maybe this year the holidays will be better if…I get to sit at the grownups table, if…I get that perfect gift, if... 

Could you recognize and respond to someone struggling with difficult feelings? This isn’t a trick question. Many people, year after year, make gallant efforts throughout the holiday season to conceal painful feelings from family, friends and loved ones. Disappointments can be masked by perfectionism, elation, isolation, agitation, thoughtlessness, teasing, inflexibility, as well as excesses of food, alcohol and other compulsive activities.

We studied the 4 Rs Model in earlier posts to determine if group members were truly present, to identify how Ruptures awaken the flight or fight reactions of Regression, and how attending to one’s difficult emotions supports Repair and Resolution. Let’s revisit the group now as Jim, Francie, Hank, Grace and Doug share their holiday concerns and use the 4 Rs as a helpful coping resource.

Jim revealed how the holidays are fun for him as he prepares favorite dishes and finds gifts for his wife and family members. In some ways, he said, “This is my favorite time of year! I enjoy doing all these things, but I get angry when my family doesn’t make an effort to help, acknowledge my efforts, or consider what I would like when they are picking out gifts for me.”

Hank stated that his father is like Jim; he wants the family’s focus to be on him. The difference is, Hank said, “When my father gets disappointed, his anger is directed at me.” The group sat in silence until Jim asked Hank how he handles these public attacks from his father. “I want to lash out at him because sucking it up feels worse, so I indirectly undercut him with sarcasm,” Hank said.

Doug noted how Jim and Hank’s reactions to being discounted seem similar. Jim added that whereas Hank becomes the focus of his father’s anger, “I outwardly cut off while inwardly I turn my anger on myself to conceal my hurt feelings.” Jim asked Hank if it was possible that he absorbs his father’s anger as a way to divert it away from his mother and sisters. Hank said he had never thought about it and that he appreciated Jim thinking of him as generous.

Hank wondered if Jim’s insight might reflect on how Jim protects his own family from his anger by attacking himself. Jim admitted not knowing and added that he is disgusted by his hurt feelings because they feel so needy. The group expressed concern to Jim about his self-judgment and wondered if he is stoic throughout the year and waits for the holidays for his needs to get met. Jim felt this was spot-on even though he didn’t know how or when it might have started.  

Francie reflected back to the silence that occurred. To me, she said, “Hank’s comparison of Jim to his father seemed harsh and I felt anxious.” She asked if anyone else did too. Doug allowed that at first he felt concerned and then he felt relief and appreciation for Jim’s caring connection with Hank. The group’s awareness that Jim and Hank’s internal Ruptures produced both passive and aggressive feelings in Regression was an important insight. They also appreciated the chance to witness, in a potential moment of stress, that a caring connection created an opportunity to bypass obstacles and support Repair.

Grace said she admired Jim’s holiday enthusiasm and shared how she is drawn into it as well. “I connect with my mother’s excitement about attending holiday parties and visiting with old family friends. Yet it never fails that soon after I arrive, she mutters how she isn’t sure she has the energy to do anything special. At that point, her holiday happiness falls to me. She expects me to be cheerful, attentive, and helpful. After days of being isolated with my mother’s attempts to reinforce all the feelings of being flawed and unworthy that she’s imposed on me over the years, I fear losing myself. It takes all my energy not to be consumed by her during my visits.”

Doug commented how the holiday chaos that swirls about in his family is directly linked to whoever is either “on- or off- the wagon.” He asked the group if drinking was a big part of anyone else’s holiday activities. As heads nodded affirmatively, Doug shared how difficult it is for him to tolerate his family’s insipid banter about his mother’s latest diet, his dad being preoccupied with TV sports, and his siblings’ efforts to outshine each other. When the whining, arguing and teasing go too far, “I know we’ve all become overwhelmed by the varied mood swings caused by drinking and over-eating. The exchanges of faux affection make my emptiness more real and painful. I love them and I would really like to connect with them in the ways we work to connect here in group.”

Francie told Doug that drinking and distractions were also the norm at her family’s events and that she could understand his sadness. She let Grace know she recognizes Grace’s fear of her mother’s grip on her. “What is becoming unbearable for me,” she said, “is how my mother’s liberal attitudes require her to invite my partner to join our family for the holidays. My mother has directly told me and everyone else that she just doesn’t know ‘what to do with us’ (as a couple). It feels so awkward for us to be the thorn causing discomfort. I know being relegated to the ‘children’s table’ would be insulting for many, yet my mother gaily announces that we will sit with my siblings’ children because ‘they just don’t get enough time with Auntie Francie.’ Frankly being with the children and fading into the background noise is really the only time we can relax together.” 

Clinical Considerations

For many of us the holidays can be stressful and old coping strategies have a tendency to make an appearance.  When you consider that expectations are a setup for disappointment, it makes sense to be aware of yourself and to observe what might be going on with others.

Virginia Satir identified family roles that serve as emotional defenses and tend to turn up throughout the holidays. The “Placator” fears criticism and focuses on pleasing others. The “Blamer” finds fault with others as a way to justify withdrawing. The “Computer” avoids feelings with intellectual details. The “Distracter” defuses family problems by being entertaining and endearing.

Satir also offers a healthy family role. The “Leveler” endeavors to be emotionally available and to authentically connect in relationships. This is the family role that the group members strive to achieve. Understanding the 4 Rs helps them develop sensitivity to spontaneous Ruptures and the ways Regression exposes reactive emotions and/or defensive family roles. They also know that slowing down to connect with their own or another’s difficult feelings can create opportunities for Repair and Resolution.

Best Wishes and Happy New Year to you and yours throughout this Holiday Season!

When regular posts resume in 2016, we’ll explore the likely origins of the Adult Child.