Therapy sessions this time of year tend to sound more like meetings between theatre critics during award season than exchanges between doctor and patient. Regardless of how stable or erratic your life tends to be the other 11 months of the year, there's no avoiding drama in December.
The reason for this is a matter of genetics. I mean, family. Yes. That's the word. If you have parents, brothers, sisters or cousins and you visit them around the holidays, you can't avoid your destiny: There will be family drama between Thanksgiving and New Year's. You don't even need to come from a culture that traditionally celebrates these holidays, because you're here now. This is America. This is how we do it. We like our cars big, our beer cold and our families dysfunctional.
Can you sidestep all of the drama? Unfortunately not, but with some wisdom and patience you can come out of the theatre of family with less bruises than most of the Black Friday shoppers.
Why can't you escape family drama? It comes down to the different roles you play during your life. You are a grownup now, or at least you look like one. If you are not sure if you are an adult or not, consider the following one-question litmus test:
Do you currently have any kind of insurance? Heath insurance? Car insurance? Boat insurance? Exotic bird insurance? You do? Well, there you have it. Checkmate, you're in the club.
But you haven't always been an adult. Once upon a time you were someone's baby, little sister, older brother or snot-nosed cousin. You used to play a different role than that of an adult who takes care of himself or herself and makes thoughtful decisions about dentists and cell phone carriers. When you go back to your childhood home it's not that you are necessarily transported to "Crazyland," as much as it may seem that way, it's just that you come face to face with people who knew you as that kid who they could cuddle without consent or bribe by letting stay up an extra hour. It's not your sister's fault that her intimate knowledge of your personality ended right about the time that you finally got sick of "Mr. Jones" by Counting Crows.
Because of this change in roles, you, and the rest of your family, aren't quite sure how to act toward each other. Do you treat each other like adults or do you revert to well-worn patterns of behavior from the past? If you decide to go with adult roles what are you supposed to talk about? Do you share intimate secrets like you are close friends or stick to cocktail party banter? On the other hand, going back to the past role doesn't feel right either. I mean, we all like a good noogie now and then, but somehow that just feels wrong -- I mean, you have business cards and the baristas at Starbucks have been calling you "sir," for a while now. This is the stress caused by role confusion and the reason for much of the drama you experience this time of year.
So what's the solution? If you've read this far I'm guessing that it can only be one of two reasons:
1.) You really really don't want to review those documents and you've already done all the Sudoku puzzles you can find, or
2.) You think I have some answer to this question.
There isn't necessarily a "right answer," to this question, just different answers with various accompanying degrees of personal and interpersonal discomfort.
Here are a few suggestions for how to navigate the upcoming family visits:
The first and most important principle to follow is that no matter how you play it, do not engage in or allow, any negative behavior that is clearly leftover from years ago. Embarrassing nicknames, humiliating stories or vestigial anger about past injustices should not be tolerated. If you are here, and present, you are moving on. There's no going back. If you see the conversation moving in any of these directions, change the subject, gently confront it or politely excuse yourself.
Observe and Choose
If you feel stress when you are around your family observe the different roles that you are being asked to play and consider how you want to play it. If you see your aunt Fran approaching you and your just know she is going to squeeze your cheeks and call you her "Chubby Wubby Lovie" right in front of your new girlfriend you've got a decision to make: push her out of the way, sidestep her, or take your pinches like a little "Chubby Wubby Lovie." Any choice you make has the potential to disappoint someone: aunt Fran, your girlfriend or yourself. There's no perfect call, just different ones, so make the decision that you feel is going to make the most sense for you.
We all tend to fall back into old patterns of behavior, especially during times of stress, so don't beat yourself up if you suddenly find yourself allowing your big brother boss you around like it's 1999. When and if you can catch yourself in a previous mode of behavior you can remind yourself that you are no longer Timmy's emotional punching bag. You can make a different and healthy choice, including leaving early if you are feeling overwhelmed. Better to excuse yourself from a party that is getting out of hand than to go nuclear and regret it down the line. You are a grownup and deserve respect, as do other adults and children for that matter. If you keep this in mind, you are well on your way to a less dramatic and dysfunctional season.
Following these suggestions will not guarantee that your holidays will be drama-free, but when Jan. 2 rolls around you will spend less time reviewing the play and worrying about what they are going to choose for your Oscar clip. Under the circumstances, that's a pretty good outcome for December and a great start to an emotionally healthy 2012.
Follow Ben Michaelis, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drbenmichaelis