“We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our body, which is doomed to decay..., from the external world which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless force of destruction, and finally from our relations with other men... This last source is perhaps more painful … than any other.”
― Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents
Holidays are filled with expectations that challenge even normal, happy families; the sheer volume of extra activities and celebrations can be both exhilarating and exhausting. This is the season for reaffirming relational bonds, a time of year that’s all about commemorating connection.
But in contrast, family trauma is often characterized by a loss of connection. Because holidays stand for all that is filled with hope and togetherness, they can highlight what feels missing as well as what is there, making the gap between what is and what we wish were seem more pronounced. Words never spoken and feelings never felt can create a sense of estrangement from the core of what makes us tick as a family unit, particularly when there is an expectation to be in a holiday mood. And holidays are inevitably a time of imbibing, which for families that have dealt with addiction can add another layer of complication.
COMPARING OUR INSIDES WITH OTHER PEOPLE’S OUTSIDES
We’re all filled with images of the ideal or even the normal family that dance around our heads approaching and during the holiday season. For most of us, there’s a pressure to get together with family that there isn’t at other times of the year and more than that, a pressure to be happy, grateful and filled with joy at the opportunity to be with those we love. But if those we love have been the source of some of the greatest pain in our lives, then this pressure can become inwardly dis-equilibrating. The pressure we feel from the inside and the pressure we feel from the outside coalesce; creating a cauldron of emotions that can be difficult to manage. And dysfunctional families have often not developed good skills of self-regulation or relational regulation; they may experience the kinds of emotional mood swings and unmanageability that relational trauma kindles. Approaching the holiday season we may find ourselves trying to dispel memories of gatherings gone wrong, drunkenness, fights, doors slamming and tears; disturbing recollections of festivities from the past that became explosive and painful swim around our heads.
We may carry this unsettling mix of emotions along with presents, ribbons, and bows into family events. We’re torn between the holiday we wish for and the one we fear might happen. We’re confused about why we’re afraid of people we love so much. We don’t know what to do with the resentment we carry over the family pain that has gone unacknowledged and unexpressed, that is vibrating beneath the smiles we’re holding in place somewhere across the bottom halves of our faces. We may look like (or sort of like) we’re holiday happy but we feel on the inside like a fractured, cubist period Picasso…. all our parts are more or less there, but in all the wrong places and we can feel distorted on the inside, our inner world threatening to leak out sideways at the slightest provocation.
Or maybe we’re choosing not to reconnect with family at all and are dealing with feelings of estrangement, guilt and perhaps even relief around that. Whatever our situation, the holidays can act as a powerful trigger for the kind of unresolved pain that, without treatment, passes from one generation seamlessly into the next, finding ever more veiled ways of coming out.
The Path of Pain
Relational trauma is not a one-time car accident; it isn’t a hurricane or an operation or something that has a clear beginning, middle, and end. It’s about the twisting of our inner world that we have to do to adapt to those close to us who are not acting anything like normal; or the shapes we bend into to stay connected, when another part of us is dying to flee or fight or simply to curl up into a little ball and hide. These are the patterns of intimacy that we learn in our traumatized family and carry into subsequent, intimate relationships. We long to be close but fear being close all at the same time. We mistrust deep connection having experienced too many times how it has led to so much pain and hurt. And this is what we walk in the door with at a family gathering, a longing to be close and have fun with those we love and an equal dread and frozenness around what might happen. It’s the elephant in the living room, the secret that everyone knows, the holiday cheer and fear that hangs in the room and is picked up on by all present, even the children.
The hypervigilance that grows out of trauma makes us vulnerable to overreacting to things in the present that carry a pain filled scent or overlay from the past, our fear of something going wrong might mean we overreact to slights that we’d otherwise let pass by. Our mistrust, our waiting for the other shoe to drop can actually become the other shoe dropping. Resentments fill us with the kind of judgment that does not allow new energy to flow in, that prejudices our perceptions of others. Pain that has not been processed, understood and left in the past where it belongs develops an afterlife; it seeps into the underground relationships in the present, becoming a part of what fuels new and often distorted growth. The past and the present become a tangled mass within us; and there is a pull because of the repetitive tradition of holidays, to move back to our baseline of functioning, wherever we left it.
The Child Inside: From COA to ACoA
Children make sense of the world and their family members with the equipment that they possess at any given moment along their developmental continuum. This phenomenon is part of the family story and when that story gets revisited around a holiday tree or table, each family member can regress in the blink of an eye to that place inside them that is calling the loudest, to a level of maturity that is not necessarily equivalent to their current age but rather represents a maturational arrest caused by family trauma. In some ways children who are over-challenged by early adversity can become mature beyond their years, little adults functioning on behalf of parents who are dropping the ball. But there are other ways in which these same children have not had their gradual needs for nurturance and safety adequately met. They have had to grow up too fast and as a result, they may have left significant parts of themselves behind. These forgotten childhood selves call to them on the inside, not in a voice that can be heard or even understood, but in a silent scream, a stage whisper an invisible current of need and hurt that shoots through the atmosphere of a family gathering with the alacrity of an electrical storm. The sensation inside of family members can be both frightening and awesome. Frightening because they have all been here before and it ended badly, awesome because maybe this time someone will say the right thing instead of the wrong thing, maybe this time some magical deus ex machina, will descend from the heavens, or the ropes and pulley system on stage right and deliver, once and for all, an inspired resolution to this whole mess. Maybe the machine of God will make sense of why we, a family who loves each other, can have caused such consistent and overwhelming pain to those we are supposed to care about the most.
The holidays cast a spotlight on family dynamics that may be problematic, creating a sort of heightened reality for all present. Holidays present a script, “be happy, love one another, connect”, but family members who carry buried and denied pain can experience themselves at these times like actors going through the motions, inauthentic, mouthing the words. There is an awkwardness that lingers in the air and a powerful but unrequited wish for something we feel we cannot have.
So the dilemma is do I recovery myself and suffer the survivor’s guilt of getting healthy while the rest of the system is still mired in dysfunction? Or do I go down with the ship?
Perhaps there is a third path, a deep recognition that the family we love and want may not be the family we have, but that we can enter consciously where possible and without the almost magical expectation that things will be as we wish. Because ultimately healing this kind of pain has to be done person by person and the point of healing it is so that we do not pass it down unconsciously to another generation, so that we don’t let the pain of yesterday leak into and shape our relationships of today. And to do this we need to take that beautiful and wise advice of the twelve-step programs, “detach with love.” Because any other way of detaching leaves us in pain and closes a door to healing that may or may not come in our families of origin, but can and will come in the families we create if we can let it.
Without rigorous help and dedication to recovery, traumatized families tend to live out legacies of pain, but this, of course, need not be the case. Help is always there if we can seek it out.
Tian Dayton, Ph.D. and Senior Fellow at the Meadows