How To Avoid Regressing While Home For The Holidays: 5 Tips From Experts
It's a common trope—you've evolved since the days of tumultuous teenage angst, and you've finally reached a common ground with your parents (something that seemed impossible at the ripe age of 16). Then suddenly, the holidays roll around, you're back home, and suddenly you're back to your old behaviors.
No matter how much you've grown, going home for an extended period of time has a way of reversing your progress. So, why do so many people emotionally regress in their childhood homes, and can it be avoided?
Why do we regress when going home for the holidays?
Not everyone will regress to their childhood or teenage roles, but those who have less differentiation are likely to. Differentiation refers to the ability to become your own person and separate from your family's feelings and experiences, family therapist Jennie Marie Battistin, M.A., LMFT, tells mbg.
Those who haven't learned to set boundaries with their family members may be more likely to fall into old, potentially unhealthy patterns. (People-pleasers may be especially susceptible to this, she suggests.)
"There may always be annoying behaviors within the family," Battistin says, "but when an individual is resilient and self-aware, they are less likely to be disturbed and emotionally reactive to those annoyances."
That said, even those who've learned to set boundaries and developed a sense of self may be victim to behavioral, social, or emotional regression, purely due to the changes in relational dynamics.
"When we're not with people on a regular ongoing basis, those dynamics are still under the surface," social psychologist Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D., previously told mbg, "but because we're not interacting often, we're no longer aware of them." In other words, the ways in which we used to engage with family members or old friends can begin to return if new, regular dynamics have not replaced them.
How to avoid regressing while home:
1. Mentally prepare before you go.
While you don't have control over the way your family behaves, you can control the way you react to it. Battistin says to think of family patterns and behaviors that generally irritate you, and then decide how you want to react if they occur.
This can prevent you from saying something hurtful in the heat of the moment or can help you walk away before things become too bothersome for you.
2. Practice gratitude.
Family can be stressful at times; there's no doubt about that. But, as many people are spending the holidays alone this year, try to practice gratitude for the time you get to spend with your family. Choosing to acknowledge one or two traits or moments you appreciate can keep minor annoyances and disappointment at bay, Battistin says.
3. Take breaks.
If you notice yourself becoming tense or your emotions are beginning to rise, it's OK to take breaks. "Excuse yourself to the restroom or take a walk," Battistin recommends. "During this break, engage with deep, slow breaths to calm yourself, acknowledge your internal truth, and that you do not need to be swayed by your family's opinions, expectations, or emotions," she says.
If you're becoming anxious or notice yourself slipping into old patterns, ground yourself by engaging all five senses. "Take a moment and note five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste," she suggests. "If you're still feeling anxious, repeat until the anxiety reduces."
4. Accept your family for who they are.
So long as the relationship with your family is not toxic, it's perfectly acceptable to acknowledge (and even appreciate) your family's quirks. Practicing acceptance, rather than trying to change your family into an idealistic expectation, can be freeing. "Attempt to see their imperfections and shortcomings as what makes them unique and special rather than reacting to them negatively," Battistin says.
5. Set boundaries.
When setting boundaries, first decide what kind you need to set. For example, fluid vs. rigid, or emotional vs. intellectual (to name a few). Once you've decided what type of boundary to set, Battistin recommends utilizing "I" statements to communicate those boundaries with family members. For example, "I feel X about X, and I need X." That might sound like: "I feel angry and disappointed when the story about my embarrassing high school prom is brought up. I need you to respect that this is no longer a topic to discuss."
The bottom line.
Going home for a long stretch of time brings a lot of mixed emotions. As joyous as it can be to see family members, it's almost inevitable to revert to old family patterns. This form of regression can, thankfully, be avoided by getting clear on your approach and expectations before the holidays sneak up.
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