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Meeting the Family

Many people dread family get-togethers even if they really do love each other. We see this happening often – maybe you’ve even had this experience yourself and wonder why it’s so difficult. You really do love these people after all. The discomfort of meeting family is usually most obvious around Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and any other holiday where families traditionally meet. And this discomfort arises for adults who are meeting their parents (no matter how old the parents are) and for parents who are meeting their grown-up children (no matter how old the children are).

   This discomfort arises for many reasons. It can help to examine some of the reasons why this happens because just understanding why this happens can give more peace of mind.

   So let’s step back for a moment and remind ourselves of the basic mechanisms of mind. First of all it’s good to remember that each individual lives in his/her own mental universe. This is a universal law. This also means there is no common experience which everyone in the family is having at the same time.  What one person experiences has nothing to do with what the other person or people experience. What I experience has nothing to do with what you experience.  One person can think everything is just wonderful and be having a good time while the next person can be having quite a different experience.  So remember, just because you think things went well, it doesn’t mean everyone else shares your experience. And vice versus, just because you feel unhappy or freaked out of your mind, it doesn’t mean everyone else felt the same way. This is because we can only experience our own thoughts, stories and interpretation of events. So there is no one common “family” experience but as many different experiences as there are people present. And we don’t (we can’t) experience what the other people are thinking or their stories about what’s going on – we can only experience our own stuff. 

   When you understand this, you can also see that since each person is living and experiencing his/her own mental universe, this must include his or her dysfunctional beliefs, thoughts and stories (programming) and the dysfunctional behavior that arises as a result of these dysfunctional beliefs and stories.  And because of this, it is also easy to see and understand that when the family gets together, it triggers each member’s individual issues – whatever they are! This is getting real about family get-togethers. This is waking up to the reality that people have a wide range of issues stemming from their family background and growing up years – and that family get-togethers are a great trigger for these issues. Hence the discomfort – your discomfort, his discomfort, her discomfort, yes everyone’s discomfort! 

   The reality is: Most families are more or less dysfunctional – there’s no shame in this.

It’s just the way things are…

   The reality is: Most people are more or less confused – and there’s no shame in this either.

It’s just the way things are…

   So if all this is true, what can we do about it?

   Well here are some good things to remind yourself of before you meet the family!

1) It’s not your job to fix it

You are not responsible for what the other people in your family are feeling and experiencing. Remind yourself that everyone is feeling and experiencing what they are feeling and experiencing because of their own individual thoughts and beliefs. Their happiness or unhappiness is a result of their interpretation of what is going on. You can’t change this. You can’t prevent this from happening. This is universal law – an impersonal mechanism.

   Family meetings trigger each member’s issues. And again, you can’t prevent this from happening and you can’t change this. Nor are you to blame for this happening. Again this is an impersonal mechanism.

   It’s not your job to fix this or fix the other people in your family. And the reality is – you can’t. Your job is to take care of you – and to realize that your own experience is your own. You are responsible for taking care of yourself in this situation – you are not responsible for taking care of the other people. (And this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat everyone with respect). What it does mean is that you are not responsible for the other people’s happiness. (And again, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be kind, considerate, polite, and loving. Nor does this mean you shouldn’t learn to communicate clearly and set limits as to what is ok for you and what is not.)

2) Mind your own business

If other people have problems or issues when the family gets together, then it’s their job to figure out how to deal with their problems. He or she can go to therapy, read books, go to a 12-step program or do whatever it takes to deal with their issues. It’s not your job. Your job is to deal with your own issues.  It can be a great help to remember that you can’t know what’s good or bad in the long run for anyone in your family. What may seem like a crisis or a source of great discomfort to someone at the moment may in fact be the start of a great awakening for this person.

   And this doesn’t mean you can’t say what you think. You can.

   You can do what you like. Always. (And yes, all our words and actions have consequences – but this doesn’t mean you can’t do what you like. You can. You always can.)

3) It’s not so black and white

Remember you can all probably have a good time together even if there is some discomfort. It’s good to remember that things are usually not so black and white. Even if there is some discomfort, there will probably be some good moments too. The reality is that your feelings and experience change and so does everyone else’s, so most family get-togethers are a mixture. And yes, it is possible to live with unresolved problems and issues. (Again, this is reality. We’re all living with unresolved problems and issues!)

   You don’t have to agree about everything. You can disagree on things and still have a good time. Agreement and love are two different things. You can love someone and disagree on lots of stuff. Again, look at the reality. Do you agree with everything the people you love think or say?

   You probably love each other – even if you’re mad as hell. That’s just the way it is.

4) Be good to you

Be extra kind to yourself when being with your family triggers the feelings of your wounded inner child. If you feel bad, know that this is okay. And when this happens (and it probably will), remember it’s your job to be your own loving parent and take good care of yourself. It helps to realize that none of these other people (no matter how good their intentions or how much they love you) can do this for you. This is your job. And with a little practice, you can do this.

   I know this might sound hard, but it also helps to realize that even though you really love these people, you don’t need them to live a happy life. Getting together will probably work better for you if you’re not so desperate about wanting things to work out well.  (And this doesn’t mean that this is not your preference).

   And finally if meeting the family is problematic for you, it also helps to realize that meeting the family will probably continue to be problematic for you – maybe for the rest of your life. But that if you are willing to do some inner work and then keep the basic principles outlined above in mind when you meet the family, things will probably be a little easier for you each time you meet. And if not, well remember, you can survive without your family.

5) When it’s best to stay away

There are also cases when it’s simply best to stay away from your family. If one or both of your parents or any other member of your family is abusive in any way, it’s your job to take care of you. And this means in situations like this, it’s probably best to stay away. This may also be the case if one of your parents or another family member is an alcoholic, a drug addict or dangerous (violent) in any way. Unfortunately, this is the reality in some highly dysfunctional families – even if the various family members maintain that everything is okay. All this means is that they’re in denial!  But just because they’re in denial, it doesn’t mean you have to be. So regardless of what they say and whether or not your family understands – if you feel abused, violated, unsafe, or shamed – stay away!

   I also highly recommend that if you come from this kind of background, you go to a 12-step program to get a little clarity about your situation. 12-step programs, such as ACA or Al-Anon, are extremely healing and liberating for people from dysfunctional families. Becoming a member and going to meetings regularly can help you understand your experience and why you feel like you do. When you begin to understand the mechanisms of dysfunctional families, you will better understand your wounds, insecurities and why you have such difficulty dealing with your family. And then, as you begin to gain a little clarity about your past, the programs can help you better understand that each and every one of us has a right to our own reality and that it’s each individual person’s job learn to take care of themselves in relation to their dysfunctional families.  And yes, this is something you can learn to do!


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