Worried about how to survive your family reunion?
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Imi Lo: Psychotherapist, Art Therapist, Supervisor (MMH,UKCP,HCPC,MBPsS)
27th October, 20150 Comments
After having spent years trying to break free from the chain of pain and guilt, you have successfully walked away and built a life outside of home. Yet somehow, minutes into a reunion can have you regressed back into feeling and behaving like a vulnerable child, or a raging teenager. This is not uncommon: Our family members push our buttons so powerfully because they installed the buttons in the first place!
Whilst reunion can be a celebratory and joyous time for some, very few people have the ‘ideal families’. For many others, 'family’ is not a place for them to safely lean on, call on, or gain support from. It may even be laden with a toxic dynamic or traumatic memories. Perhaps you were ‘the black sheep’ of your family; perhaps you never felt you belonged, and you know that you never will; perhaps you have been disappointed enough that for you the notion of ‘family’ simply means you share a bloodline. In these cases, it is important to prepare yourself during these occasions of reunion - here are four strategies that can be helpful:
1. Mental rehearsal
Intellectually, you know that you are no longer a helpless, fearful child, but a grown adult with new resources and mental strengths. Yet intellectual understanding often does not suffice when your family members behave in the same old ways that trigger your woundings. In these instances staying strong requires a visceral remembering of your truth, your healthy values and your right to be accepted for who you are.
Try this mental exercise:
Imagine yourself in a room with your family members, and now - take a birds-eye view of the way you dress, the way you present yourself, and think about your life as a whole.
What kind of decisions have you made in your life that differentiate yourself from your family of origin?
Think about all that you have achieved since you have left home, who does that make you?
What are your values and what do you value in life now, as an adult?
Think about those who appreciate and accept you fully for who you are in your current life - what do they love about you, despite your flaws and imperfection?
Now imagine yourself standing proud and strong with a renewed, adult sense of self, whilst being in the room with your family members. Acknowledging that though you maybe ‘different’, you are not wrong or flawed in anyway. And as you have built a new life outside of home, you are a mere visitor to this place. Nothing that goes on here would threaten your core identity and the love you have in life right now.
2. Don’t expect it to be easy
Since the day you left home, you have allowed yourself the time and space to grow, but your family members might not like your changes. From the perspective of system theory, you have upset the ‘homeostasis’ (albeit a toxic one) of the existing family dynamic. Ideally, your family members would celebrate your positive changes, learn to relate to you differently, and eventually settle into a new equilibrium, yet this can take a long time and often do not happen. Instead, they may - though often unconsciously - guilt-trip or criticise you so things can go back to the way they were. These toxic behaviours can be as subtle as a disappointed expression, or as forceful as a violation of your boundaries; you may ended up feeling guilt-ridden, manipulated, and threatened.
For some individuals, the frustration can also come from a gap of intellectual, emotional or psycho-spiriual development between you and your family members. For instance, despite having the best intention, your relatives may hold onto their more traditional or conventional mindset, whilst you have matured with a wider horizon. Though benign in nature, their behaviours or commentaries can be irritating, or worse, act as reminders of some of your painful early experiences.
An important part of surviving the reunion is acknowledging that it is not going to be easy. Sometimes it is useful to think of your return as a mere ‘task’, rather than a vacation. Perhaps imagine yourself playing a role as an actor or actress, whose job is to entertain and humour your audience. You can exchange pleasantry, and not take the conversations too seriously. At the end of the day, you can de-role and be who you are again.
3. Mourning ‘what might have been’
In addressing the complex feelings when it comes to your family, the concept of ‘mourning’ cannot be emphasised enough. It can be a difficult, even a painful endeavour, but will ultimately free you up.
Deep inside, we all have a yearning for the caregivers who love, attend to, and appreciate us for who we are. We hope for parents who protect us when we feel unsafe, and free us up when we need to explore. We wish for parents who are responsive to our true needs, rather than imposing their own agenda. Yearning for the ‘perfect parents’ is the most natural human desire that you carry from the day you were born.
In usual circumstances, ones’ parents need not be ‘perfect’, but ‘good enough’ for the child to grow up healthy and resilient.
Unfortunately, sometimes due to their own limitations or environmental constraints, many parents have fail to fulfil their children’s basic needs for love, healthy attachment, safety and autonomy, leaving many adult-children with a void in their hearts.
As we become an adult and our parents get older, we come to the painful understanding that the past is in the past and the void will never be filled. Despite an intellectual understanding, a part of us, often our younger self, continues to seek the ‘perfect parents’. This part of us really wants our parents to eventually ‘get it’, and keep trying, in the hope of them finally getting them to see us for who we truly are. Sadly, if your parents are not ready or do not have the capacity to change, trying to get your needs met in this way almost always end in disappointment and repeated hurt.
At some point, you will have to let go. Remember that the family you have not seen for a long time are not prepared to be your friends, or therapist. You may feel more vulnerable if you were to share your true feelings or internal struggles with them and not receive the attention or responses you want. Before you set off for home, make sure to put enough alternative emotional outlet in place - a friend, a therapist, or even a journal or a canvas. Knowing where and who to go to for authentic and fulfilling sharing will reduce the temptation for you to keep knocking on the wrong door, in the futile hope that one day your ideal parents will walk out and greet you.
4. Set some actual boundaries
If you can already anticipate the occasions to be emotionally depleting for you, you may want to set some firm, actual boundaries in place. Remember that you don’t owe anyone anything. Are there certain relatives that you simply cannot tolerate? Who, when and what form of communication are you most likely to enjoy? How much time and closeness is too much for you? The key is to know your boundaries and limits prior to the events, in order to prepare yourself and others around you.
Bottom line: Viscerally see and feel yourself as a resourceful and independent adult, acknowledge your strengths and gifts, and stand proud and strong in your own truth. Ground yourself in the life you have built outside of home, rather than keep trying to seek your parents’ love, admiration or approval. When you can really see yourself for who you are and fully embrace that, you will experience a warm sense of calmness and compassion, and that will keep you grounded in the face of the many old triggers.
About the author
Imi is an award-winning mental health professional, accredited clinical psychotherapist (UKCP), art therapist (HCPC, BAAT), supervisor and trainer. She specialises in emotional intensity, sensitivity, borderline personality traits, and unblocking creative potential in people. She is the founder of Eggshell Therapy Practise, based in London, UK.
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