Of all the wonders of the holidays, one of the most magical occurrences is the way we can snap right back into our old roles when we are reunited with our families-of-origin.
I am a 51-year-old grandmother and yet the moment I am together with my mom and sisters, I resume the Baby Sister role: scattered, late, trying to catch up and prove myself. My sense of humour becomes a touch snark-ier and my feelings are more readily hurt.
I don’t like myself that way and yet the “little sis” mantle is comfortably around my shoulders before I can even remember to resist slipping into character. I have spent years working to reshape my thinking and behaviour. How can I so easily abandon my restored values?
If you are headed to a family gathering over the holidays and find the prospect stressful, it could be because you are dreading the loss of self that occurs when our old family roles are no longer in alignment with current values. (Thank you, therapy. No charge, readers.)
Here is what I have learned to do about that:
- Choose your part.
Through working with a counsellor, I learned that we get through difficult situations by relying on various aspects of our personalities. This becomes dysfunctional when we become dependent on them and they start to feel like masks we hide behind rather than temporary tools.
For example, by nature I am introspective, kindhearted and anxious. During my decades as a business owner, I hid these qualities because I felt they made me weak. I portrayed myself as analytical, tough and confident, and boy, did I play the role convincingly. I won awards, gathered accolades, and convinced myself that it was best to keep my weaknesses unknown.
Then, perhaps in a misguided effort to balance out the workload, I started a side project of writing and performing music. I would climb onstage and become a different version, again with fake confidence but also witty and charming in a way meant more to please the crowd than to show my true self.
Not surprisingly, these were the years when I began leaning heavily on alcohol.
Later I told my therapist, “I feel like I created all these fake versions of myself that ended up trapping me and now that I am sober, I need to kill them so I can be authentic.”
When a therapist’s eyebrows fly up, you know you’ve just exposed a whole new problem. Over the next few sessions, she taught me about Internal Family Systems. I learned that these “fake versions of myself” were just overdeveloped muscles. I had stayed too long in what should have been temporary identities used to get through difficult situations. The goal going forward became staying grounded in my true self (what I call my Highest Self) and retaining those old abilities to use on occasion – intentionally and as necessary.
So before you walk into that family gathering, decide which version of yourself is the best one for the occasion. You have choices beyond your old family role. The circumstances might call for the Quiet Observer, the Social Butterfly, or the Super Helpful Dish-Doer. Do you need to utilize any of them? Keep your Highest Self in control, make mindful choices, and use the tools at your disposal when necessary.
2. Don’t believe everything you think.
Some of the best wisdom comes from recovery meetings and sharing circles. At a SheRecovers retreat on Salt Spring Island, a woman said, “I don’t have to buy into every single thing my brain comes up with. Just because I thought it doesn’t make it true.”
This concept took me by surprise because I hadn’t realized I was doing exactly that – letting every thought become a belief.
Byron Katie has some beautiful insights on this process, which she simply refers to as “The Work”. “The Work” begins with asking oneself, “Is that true?”
My family hates me. (Is that true?)
I don’t fit in. (Is that true?)
They don’t understand me. (Is that true?)
No one ever listens to me in this family! (Is that true?)
The process goes on from there – here is an overview: http://thework.com/en/do-work
3. Keep some people in your pocket.
One of the very best things about online recovery support is its portability. No matter what is going on around me, I can slip into a quiet corner and post a private message to my group. Help! The bride and groom are handing out bottles of rum as thank you gifts for the wedding guests. Should I run? (Yes, that actually happened.) Feedback included tactful ways to navigate the moment (Say thanks and leave it on a side table for someone else to take away) and encouragement for getting through the rest of the event (Keep your water glass filled and have fun), plus shout outs the next day (You did it! Good for you. Hangover-free mornings never get old!)
Being able to post to a support group in real time is grounding and motivating. Just scrolling through others’ posts can be uplifting, and offering encouragement to someone else reinforces both parties.
If your family gathering is feeling super sticky and uncomfortable, hide out for a moment and check in with your support group (or post a comment here and you will get a response – feel free to stay anonymous). Explain what is happening and ask for feedback, or just let it be known that you are feeling triggered and need reminding of why staying sober is better and also all the reasons why you shouldn’t throw pie.
Wishing you all the best as we close out 2018.
Stay sober, keep growing in your recovery, and don’t throw pie.