Grocery stores are bustling in preparation for a holiday season stuffed with opportunities to feast in the company of family and friends. Even with a kitchen full of delectables designed to create a perfect holiday experience, family dynamics can sometimes cause us to leave the table with a sour taste in our mouths. Perhaps the reason this happens is due to the wide range of unsavory, and often sugar-coated, ingredients that are thrown into the family pot, such as sarcasm, bitterness, resentment, anger, jealousy, abandonment and blame, finished with a dash of duty, obligation, stress, apathy and a handful of finger pointing.
We may show up at our relative’s homes with the agreed upon dish, but what are we really bringing to the table? While the holidays offer an opportunity to extend gratitude, acknowledge others and recognize the rituals of our faith, they can also resurrect feelings from the list of unsavory ingredients above.
Fortunately, not everyone suffers the effects of difficult family dynamics, but most of us will admit that there are kin who rub us the wrong way, despite what we believe are our best attempts to get along. It might be a passive-aggressive sibling whose stealth slams go undetected by everyone but the two of you; an embarrassing uncle with a knack for crawling up your skin; or a gossipy aunt who follows you around in hopes that you’ll break down and contribute a word to her verbal cesspool. Just because that’s the way it’s always been doesn’t mean that’s the way it must always be.
There are ways you can contribute to creating loving relationships and peace, if not on earth, at least around the dinner table:
- Try to detach from what is happening around you, so that you can observe from a fresh perspective. Allow whatever is, to be. This may take a bit of discipline, but when you are able to remove yourself emotionally from a situation, and observe it from a place of non-judgment, you will likely see the absurdity behind what has created the dynamic, and be able to find an opening for forgiveness, compassion, or empathy, and from there be able to instigate change, if only in yourself.
- To affect change, examine who you are. In the mirror you’ll find that the finger you wag at others is pointing at back at you. Think of the world as a giant mirror, with every situation, interaction, and relationship reflecting how you think, behave, and what you believe. Sometimes you’ll see incredible beauty, which you may acknowledge in others and unknowingly possess. Other times, it reflects what you deny within yourself and project onto others, which is then projected back to you through them. The reflection offers us an opportunity to recognize and shed what we don’t like in ourselves, and expand what we do. For example, if you’re fed up with your competitive sibling always trying to one-up you, examine in the mirror that she is holding up, why that bothers you. Do you feel inadequate? Why? What do you gain by playing the game? Is it really you who are competing? When you look honestly into the mirror and root out the rot, you can cultivate relationships from the only truth, that of present-moment reality, and release the distorted reality which you likely created in childhood.
- How do you contribute to the family dynamics? Take responsibility for the role you have played in creating, aiding and abetting the challenging relationship. Then, take on the responsibility of creating change. Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” There is no better place to begin than at home. Release the resentments, anger, jealousies and memories that don’t serve your highest good in the relationship. That may be easier said than done, but it doesn’t negate the fact that if you want things to improve, even potentially creating genuinely joyful relationships, you must take responsibility for having helped create the problem. Forgive yourself and others, and move forward. Remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning what has been done, but releasing the situation so as to reclaim your power. From that point you can start feeling like a victor, rather than a victim, and take responsibility for the rest of your life. Motivational speaker, Wayne Dyer, reminds us that another way to look at forgiveness is to think of it as, “thank you for giving me,” the experience from which to grow by. Gratitude is a tremendous healer. When you acknowledge the experience as a learning opportunity, you can find the gift in it and release the pain.
- Humor is extraordinarily helpful in dealing with funky family dynamics. You can’t control the situations or behaviors that erupt around you, but you can change how you perceive them. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy must love family gatherings; they are a well-spring of comedic material, and none of it eludes him. Whether you’re laughing inside or outside, remember that someone is likely laughing at you, too. Don’t fret, join them! Being able to laugh at our fallibility is a kindness we should all afford ourselves; its gift is the freedom to be who we really are. We can then extend that freedom to others, and when we accept their humanity and laugh at our own, even the sauerkraut tastes a little sweeter.