The Holidays are fast approaching! Some of you are looking forward to a relaxing family visit, many of you are slightly panicked at the thought of facing a challenging family visit. Greg Liotta, CSR's Program Coordinator, is here to help!
|Ugh. This again.|
Holiday Primer: Expanding One’s Spiritual Life at the Family Visit
Greg Liotta, MSW
November 13, 2013
With Thanksgiving a couple of weeks away, holiday season is bearing down on us, and I'll admit I am excited. I have family in NYC and Ohio, and am trying to figure out how to see them all. I wish everyone could be together in one place. I just can’t wait to get together with them, to see my loving father and laugh with my siblings, all of whom I’ve come to admire quite a bit, and be delighted by their children. But, I’ll be honest: it wasn’t always like this. There was a time I loathed the holidays, particularly the way it forced all of us to break bread at the same table again. Forced to sit with people I “didn’t choose”, didn’t feel appreciated by, didn’t appreciate in return, and wouldn’t select as my friends. Holiday gatherings would invariably end up with bickering and unbridled resentments flying. The holiday post-mortem always included a scathing critique of any number of family members, phone calls to dissect the dramas and fuel the latest family scandal. This went on for a number of years when my siblings and I were all in our 20’s. I once penned an article titled “the dreaded family visit” which expressed my feelings about the ordeal. I never published it for fear of offending too many people.
Indeed, the holidays are universally acknowledged to be a stressful time for most people, whether in recovery or not. There’s no need to elaborate on all of the many compromises to emotional, physical, and spiritual health that are made during this time of year. We all know about the devastating effects that overindulgence, disrupted routines, financial pressures, and looming end-of-the-year deadlines have on people. Stress reaches its apex at the end of the year for all sorts of reasons. Nothing new there. The point of this essay is to take a look at the dynamics between family members, offer a different perspective about them, and provide a doorway for expanding within them.
Who Am I? Who Am I in Relation to You? What is My Value? These are the fundamental questions each of us carries from childhood into adulthood. We organize our identities around them. From the moment we take our first breath, our immediate impressions become imprinted into the psyche, so in a sense, one’s identity is subject to disruption when things around us change. As such, we tend to keep others “in their place” even when they move out, grow up, and forge new identities in the world. For many years I experienced total disorientation at family holiday visits. After moving about the world in new skin as a man of respect, garnering acknowledgement in the circles I traveled, once home I experienced myself as an 8-year-old boy all over again. Some of that had to do with being back in familiar surroundings that brought to life the 8-year-old boy in me. Some of that had to do with rigid, entrenched views my parents and siblings had of me, a view that I was not able to shake despite who I had become in the world. And some of that had to do with how easy it was for me to slip back into old patterns of behaving whenever I got around my family…like an 8-year-old. Picking on my sister, goofing with my brother, rebelling against my parents. I wanted to be seen as a man, but felt like a child. And, like a child, I resented them for not seeing me as a man. In some ways, they couldn’t help it. If you’ve ever had a puppy or kittens, you’ll know what I am talking about. Even when they are old and grey, you always see them as a kitten or a puppy. I’d be rich if I had a dime for every time I've heard mothers say, about their fully grown children, “He’s my baby”. Um, no lady, he’s not a “baby”. He’s a 35-year-old man.
Family constellations can be incredibly rigid, having been forged for many generations. Sometimes the weight of a family pattern is like a boulder rolling down a hill for 20 generations. Often that force is too powerful for parents, who pass that down to you like a hot potato. For the one entering recovery, you might be the first one to stop that boulder from ramming into the next generation. But for most families, maintaining these old views and modes of behavior is essential to maintaining a certain order. Even if it’s out of tune, at least the tune is familiar. The collective consciousness of a family operates just like the ego: it wraps things up in a neat package (even if it’s “messy”), makes sense of things, and puts things in place, regardless of how unhelpful or insane it is. And it will fight tooth and nail to keep things (i.e. you, your role, expectations, routines) in their place, regardless of your efforts to break ranks and (um, become sober?) shift into a new identity.
For many people, it is essential to their self-identity that they keep you trapped in the vision they held of you as a child. Their own narrative may be intricately tied into their narrative of who you are, so once you return, even in a new incarnation, old interpersonal dynamics will re-emerge. You will be thrust back into your inner 8-year-old. Relatives often need to see you through the eyes of who you were because that is the ground upon which they understand themselves. This can be unnerving to a recovering person, or any adult seeking to re-frame or even re-script a more empowering personal narrative.
This syndrome is not only reserved for family members. It often manifests in the workplace as well, where the “experts” all have to come from outside the company. A variation on the old, “if she loves me, there must be something wrong with her” syndrome. As in, “If she’s a part of this family, she must be bonkers.” That lack of self-validation is always reflected in a lack of ability to bless others by seeing them in their highest light. A self-critical person will invariably focus on your failings before all else. Self-loathing is usually characterized by an inability to give or receive authentic praise. As such, shame-based families can be the toughest to revisit when one is attempting to transcend old paradigms.
Viewing oneself through the eyes of others is almost always an invitation to dive into the quicksand of shame. Whenever I am reflecting on some earlier mistake I made, or some situation I handled without skill, I project how I think others judge me. I do violence to my own psyche by telling myself stories about what a jerk so-and-so thinks I am, and how right they are. The more I reflect on that, the more it expands, until I am thinking of a whole crowd of people who think I’m a jerk, so therefore…I must be a jerk. When in reality, sometimes I just don’t have the skills to handle particular situations. Shame can’t see behavior as skill-based. Shame wants to judge behavior as character, so “lack of skills” becomes “she thinks I’m a jackass” which becomes “I am a jackass”. This condition can hang around a good 10, 20, even 30 years past the actual event. Invariably, I invite my own suffering by giving energy to what I think others think of me when I was not my best. And when I do that, it is impossible for me to realize the seed of magnificence I was destined to be.
However, this is not even the biggest problem. The real challenge comes when you ALSO see yourself through the eyes of your own less mature self. This is where the trouble really gets traction. When you hold onto a vision of yourself from the perspective of a less mature, less whole, and more insecure aspect of yourself, this can threaten your attempt to reinvent yourself. You know that you are still seeing yourself through those eyes when your inner 8-year-old is triggered around others who cannot see the person you have become. The family holiday visit becomes the “dreaded family visit” only when these old paradigms rise up and disrupt your emerging new self. This is your clue that the shift has not yet completed its cycle.
Until a few years ago, I had not yet made that shift. I had many accomplishments already in the “adult” world, but when I returned home I still longed for that acknowledgement from my family. And when it didn’t come, I was disappointed and then resentful, and carried out that grudge by refusing to acknowledge my siblings for the powerful people they had become. Those were difficult years. Thankfully, that acknowledgment never really did come, because, like most siblings, our dynamic was established to compete for parental acknowledgment, not fraternal support. And that withholding became a gift, because I was forced to let go of that longing. I was forced to come to peace with who I was for the sake of who I was. I had to answer the questions “Who am I?”, “Who am I in relation to you?” and “what is my value?” without being given the answers. It forced me to come to terms with the 8-year-old in me who was still making noise, demanding to be acknowledged despite not really feeling adequate or worthy. The 8-year-old in me who couldn’t let go of an 8-year-old’s world, even while living inside a grown man surrounded by grown siblings. And here is the elixir: I had to start feeding that child by feeding others. When that happened I was able to start noticing - and acknowledging - the amazing and powerful people my siblings were. I was able to acknowledge the human beings that my parents were and stop holding them hostage to ideals that no human could fulfill.
The holidays - and the family visit in particular - are opportunities to expand one’s spiritual life, for “conscious contact with god” is nothing less than acknowledging the reality of life as it is right now, in this very moment, without the big dramatic story around it. I cannot say whether or not it is a conscious decision or a gradual, organic unfolding, but at a certain point one is asked to stretch and become the person one aspires to be. It is independent of family acknowledgement (or non-acknowledgement). It is to render moot the middle question: “who am I in relation to you”, and turn it into “how can I best love you for who you have become in this world?” The reframing of that middle question informs/ transforms the other two questions. "Who am I” becomes “love”, and “what is my value?” becomes “invaluable”. So long as I am trying to “get” something from my family, showing up with my eyes big and hungry, my hands stretched out like a beggar on the street, I am incapable of giving life to the man I aspire to be. When I show up hungry like that, there’s no way I can give anything. Showing up like that sets up the old dynamic. "Expectations are resentments under construction.”
Ultimately, it is irrelevant if any member of my family accepts me or my life choices and decisions. Here’s where the chains loosen. Everybody likes approval, but it’s not a prerequisite for happiness. It would certainly be easier if everybody embraced me in my recovery and my big bag of unresolved issues. It would be awesome if everybody applauded me for all my gains and accomplishments, and gave me an award for…ANYthing. But the paradox is this: one does not become a man/a woman until one is able to step into that space on one’s own. So long as there is a need for validation, there will always be a clinging, a security blanket, an umbilical cord. Maturity might be best defined as coming to the realization that I alone am responsible for validating who I am. I am responsible for my own peace and happiness. One expands beyond the borders of a less mature self when you are able to look beyond self, and see how you can love the people in your family. It may be true, that we don’t “choose” our families. But if that is so, there must be some reason we are thrust by the universe together with them. Perhaps one reason might be so that we let go of concerns about “me” and “what they think of me”, and focus on “what can I give them?” and “How can I love them - where they need to be loved - without having to make them fit my image of perfect?” That includes the graceful yet effective skill of setting boundaries: “how can I love myself in the presence of this person’s ignorance and destructiveness?”; “How can I set limits in such a way that honors my boundaries yet preserves our relationship?”; “How can I say ‘no’ to that behavior and still say ‘yes’ to who he/she is?”. Ultimately, the experience of the family holiday becomes a wonderful experience when one agrees to let go of old, out-moded perspectives. It is a growing up, and growing up requires one to give up reaching, grabbing, and trying to accumulate. It requires letting go of the desire to shine, and instead shining the light of acknowledgement on the people that show up, especially family members. Instead of seeing them through the eyes of my history (as told by an 8-year-old), I can practice seeing them through the eyes of love: exactly as they ARE.
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” – 1 Cor 13
Greg Liotta, MSW
Center for Students in Recovery
November 13, 2013