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Are the holidays complicated in your family? You will survive - here's how

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What is it that makes family ties so different from other relationships? Where does our endless loyalty come from, and is it possible to repair broken ties?

Your family supports you through thick and thin, it is said to be some sort of law of nature. Reality can be quite different, but the feelings we have for our family members go deep. There is a loyalty towards the people you’ve grown up with, whatever happened. Perhaps you are different from the rest, perhaps you’ve left, gone your own way, perhaps you’ve found values that suit you better than the ones you learned when you were young – but still, it’s hard to lose the feeling of connectedness underneath it all. Your family is a source of power and inspiration, of warmth, safety and harmony. No matter how hard you work on your career, coming home to your family, all that seems irrelevant. Suddenly, you’re the little sister again, with her own place in the group.  

Wait until it’s Christmas

We all know that there’s a negative side, too. Your family is your first shell, your first love experience, but also your first source of pain. Wait ‘til you go home for Christmas – it’s a therapists’ joke. You take a seat at the Christmas dinner table feeling all serene and peaceful, but when dessert arrives, you’re agitated and annoyed – perhaps without knowing why or by whom.

Sometimes, it’s as if the family jacket has become too small, and still you’re sitting there in that tight jacket. The neurological paths in your brain are so deep, they’ve become four-lane roads. If you want to do things differently, you have to carve out your own road in the jungle of all things new. That’s a lot of work.

Look for the middle-ground

If your parents are divorced, you may already start worrying about Christmas in August. If you visit your mother, your father will be angry, and vice versa. It’s tempting to turn your back on the both of them, but there are always consequences. Still, doing nothing is often more dangerous than making a choice. Christmas is a holiday to remember, and your family colors the memories. Try to find middle-ground: celebrate New Year’s eve with your mom, or ask her to come over for dinner during the weekend before Christmas. It’s like the famous painter Marc Chagall said: ‘In my soul, I always carry my parents’ landscape with me.’ If you choose to stop seeing your family, it influences your other relationships, they’ll have to make up for it.

Good things to carry with you

Your family brings you positive and negative values. Find out which things suit you, and which don’t. Realize that you are not just on the receiving end: you pass on the values you carry along to your children and grandchildren. 

Shake off the cocoon

Every baby is born in total openness and without judgment. But you end up with two parents and the open-mindedness gets lost. You discover values: you can do this, you can’t do that, this is normal, this isn’t, chairs made out of oak are dowdy, velvet curtains are tacky. You can’t do without these values: you need some structure to be able to function, and it’s the parents’ task to turn the baby’s shapelessness into shape. When you go into the world, the restrictions from your youth become obsolete, like a cocoon you shake off. For instance, friends of you own oak chairs that are perfectly fine. The function of the family structure disappears. You are now part of a different community – the one at work, for instance, or the spiritual community you belong to, your nationality. Your sex, your race. It gives you power, but it excludes other groups, because they are different.

The unmentionable

Families, just like individuals, have a consciousness and a subconscious. Things that are difficult, that can’t be mentioned, that are shameful – suicide, a mental disease, a black sheep, etcetera- disappear into the subconscious. But it will not disappear altogether, it wants to be known, so it often appears in later generations – in the shape of inexplicable behavioral patterns.

The power of your ancestors

It’s impossible to change how your family works all by yourself, but you can contribute. You can make the family healthier, by looking at the stories that everyone chose not to see. Perhaps someone sacrificed something, without people knowing. Perhaps something wasn’t properly digested. A family constellation can be a beneficial form of therapy. But you can do a lot of good on your own, too.

A ritual

For instance, you can practice a ritual in which you speak to your ancestors. The parents who raised you, grandparents and other family members that had a strong influence on you, but also ancestors whom you haven’t even known. You can make a circle of tiny rocks, or flowers, or puppets. For every stone, you mention the name of a family member and make a wish. ‘You are our mother and I wish you the best on your soul’s journey. May you receive the power you need to bear what burdens you, so you don’t have to live on others’ power.’ By doing that, you hand the whole system over to something bigger, to powers you don’t even know. It has a relaxing effect, because you were able to do something.

The family soul stretches into the past, through your ancestors, and into the future, through your children. You are the link between what was and what will be. With your warmth, your love and your inspired power, you can contribute to the family soul.

Text: Lisette Thooft - Photo: Denise Johnson