With the holidays right around the corner, and with the pandemic prompting us to recommit to social distancing, family has been on my mind a lot recently. And if your family is anything like mine, the polarization and stress of this year is making our relationships feel even more intense than usual. Everything feels heightened. It makes me think about the human proclivity towards black-and-white thinking in general, and how that can also impact the way we see our loved ones.
It can be tempting to either pretend nothing is wrong in our family, or to focus only on what is wrong in our family. While seeing people one-dimensionally makes it easier to categorize them and know how to react towards them, it likely doesn’t honor the intricacies of our relationships.
Many well-intentioned social media accounts often polarize family matters further. I have read many social media posts about going “no contact” with family when you don’t agree or when certain patterns emerge. On the flip side, I also see many personal Instagram accounts who put forward images of a perfect, flawless family, with no issues.
While going “no contact” is certainly appropriate and advisable in certain situations, it’s not always what people want. And if the standard is perfection, I imagine all of our families fall short of that. So what should we do, as folks struggling to stay in relationship with people we love, despite both of our limitations?
In my experience, accepting limitations as best as we can, without judgment, and staying mindful of our needs for healthy boundaries, are two crucial elements. We can’t force the other person to engage with us in the way we might ideally want, but we can honor our own needs and wants.
It should be said, it’s hard to be honest with ourselves about our family’s limitations without placing blame or being critical of them. It can be tempting to want to protect ourselves from seeing the truth, by minimizing or avoiding our family’s shortcomings. Why is this?
Well, facing their limitations would also require us to reckon with any pain we’ve experienced due to those shortcomings. It can also prompt us to see ourselves in that same light, or to touch upon an unsavory characteristic we share. Looking in that mirror can be unnerving or uncomfortable. Our families can also bring up deep, challenging feelings that may not yet be processed – this can feel threatening to our sense of self, the relationship, or just feel too overwhelming. If we’re in this place with our families, or the triggers make us feel too reactive, it might make sense to pull back on the relationship.
Therapy can be one tool to help us get to a place where we feel capable of responding to our families rather than reacting to triggers. If we can zoom out and try to see them and ourselves as nuanced, whole people, it might offer a different opportunity: to engage more intentionally with each other, and maybe to even have more grace for our own shortcomings, too. This may not be true for all families, but for a lot of them, certainly.
What might this look like? For me, I can be mindful of when I answer the phone, how much I’m going to apologize for, or how much energy I have. I understand that family members are going to have bad days, and I’m going to have bad days. Sometimes our old patterns will emerge: sometimes we may break those patterns, and sometimes we may fall back into them. There’s no right way, no hard rule, when it comes to relationships between imperfect people. You get to determine what you’re okay with and what you’re not okay with.
Right now, people might be struggling with the idea of being with or not being with family over the holidays, or even struggling to respond to attempts to connect. Family can be overwhelming. Sometimes we know how easy it is to react without thinking or to get into old patterns, and sometimes we want to avoid that.
If you’re at your threshold, it’s okay to call them back later, or to put off a difficult conversation. But if you’re wanting tools for staying in relationship with your family, and you’re not sure how, here are some things you can keep in mind.
- Pay attention to how you’re feeling and what you need. This is relevant for a phone conversation or being in close physical proximity to them. Stay in touch with yourself.
- Take frequent breaks. A favorite of mine is taking a walk alone after dinner, to digest and have a chance to clear my head before re-engaging.
- Practice saying, ‘I don’t want to talk about this right now,’ or, ‘I do want to talk about this right now and it’s really important to me.’
- Practice holding multiple truths at once: “I know that you have your limitations and that I can’t necessarily change you. I know this is complicated. And I want to have a relationship with you. And I want to honor myself and what’s important to me. And I need to stay in touch with my own limitations.”
In my life, I often reflect on the boundaries I want to have, and I also think about being flexible with them at times. It’s a fluid, moment-by-moment process. I remind myself that none of this is final. One conversation isn’t necessarily going to be the last conversation. One dinner isn’t likely to be the last dinner. I might have more energy one day than I do another day, and my family likely feels the same about me. My hope is that there will be ongoing experiences for us to continue learning and growing.