Why the Holidays Can Drive You Crazy (& What to Do about It): Part 1
For many, the holidays truly are the most wonderful time of the year—a time of gathering with family, being close with loved ones, revisiting old memories, and making new ones. The title of this post and my post last year notwithstanding, I love the holidays, as I have many fond memories of being with my family around our Christmas tree as a boy. Being with family and friends is still deeply meaningful to me and to most of us.
However, starting a few weeks before Thanksgiving and throughout December, I frequently hear of anxiety, frustration, and even dread this time of year, because just as it’s a time of gathering with family and being close with loved ones, it’s also a time of gathering with family and being close with loved ones. Visiting family can be wonderful indeed, but if we’re honest, the holidays can you drive you crazy. Why is this, and what can you do to make your family time merry and bright?
There are a couple of ways to make sense of why being around loved ones can make you nuts in all-too-familiar ways. The first involves trauma. When you hear that word, what likely comes to mind is what I call trauma with capital “T”: car accidents, violence, abuse, and other horrors of this world that can result in overwhelming, disorganized emotional states, which is why survivors develop PTSD as an involuntary means of coping. But there’s also relational trauma—trauma with a lowercase “t”—which comes about as a failure of a trusted parent to tune into what’s going on emotionally in his or her child, whether through overstimulation or neglect and rejection. Moreover, the child attempts to get some understanding or comfort from the parent, who, instead of turning toward the child, “denies that [the] excitement or neglect occurred, blames the child for his distress, and rejects as well his efforts to seek a trusting reconnection” (Stolorow & Atwood, p. 53). Ouch.
Relational trauma can be tricky to recognize. Most don’t realize when trauma has happened in the moment, especially because these relational patterns of being “missed”—that is, misunderstood—and emotional pain started very early in life. What you’re more likely to recognize are your “crazy” feelings of unease, anger, frustration, or sadness that feel familiar somehow when you’re with your family, feelings that result from ways of being subtly missed, neglected, blamed, or shamed that you’re probably used to. (To read more about how this happens with couples, click here and here.)
What’s important here is to recognize what is familiar about being with your family, whether it’s around the holidays or during other times of the year. In Part 2, we’ll look at another way to think about the “crazy” feelings you might be experiencing this time of year, and in Part 3, we’ll consider what you might begin to do this season to feel a little more yourself.
Stolorow, R. D., & Atwood, G. E. Contexts of Being: The Intersubjective Foundations of Psychological Life.