I’m one of four siblings, we all have children, and my mother celebrates her birthday within days of Christmas. So stress, guilt, obligation, uncomfortable familial patterns, and financial pressure were as much a part of our winter holidays as the joy of being together. I’ve had my share of holiday interactions that were based far more on tribal guilt and a sense of obligation than peace and good will towards men (and women). Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, I’m sure there is a special holiday, wedding, or annual family reunion that springs to mind when you read this. And I hope you will relate to what I’m about to share. At a time when I just wanted to relax and go within, I found myself feeling overwhelmed, obligated, and worthy of blame. And this grew with each passing year, until recently.
The massive cultural build up of expectations that the holidays will be a time when families all get together and all past wounds are healed (think Scrooge in The Christmas Carol), leads to incredibly unrealistic ideas about what you owe your family or loved ones during the holidays. Add to that the fact that many families are now blended (half brothers and sisters, divorced parents, in-laws, and so forth) and you have a recipe for health-eroding guilt and obligation. For example, having to visit several sets of relatives on Christmas day in order to “please” everyone, even though you’d much rather stay home and simply enjoy the day, creates tremendous stress.
The pressure to create the perfect holiday can be enormous—especially for women. There is also the desire to make family members and guests feel welcome and happy, often at great personal expense. When my children were little and on into their teenage years, I had recurrent dreams that it was Christmas Eve and I hadn’t done any shopping yet. At that time I was working 60-80 hours per week and had almost no time to take care of myself, let alone create storybook holidays. Although I know that Christmas morning was a time when the house was overflowing with abundance, I would be in a frenzy leading up to the big day. I wanted to make up for my absence during the year and to assuage my guilt about it.
The reason that the holidays are so difficult for so many is because very few of us have escaped at least one of the major childhood wounds: betrayal, shame, and abandonment. Some have experienced all three! As Mario Martinez, Ph.D., founder of the Biocognitive Science Institute explains, these wounds become entangled with love until it’s hard to separate love from abuse. For example, if you were betrayed as a child by a relative who should have loved and protected you, then as an adult, you may have difficulty separating love from abuse.
An acquaintance of mine was physically abused as a child. One day her behavior with me was so irritating that I began to yell at her—something I had never done in my life. She began to cry and said, “Now I know you love me.” It was the first time that I truly understood how closely love and wounding can be intertwined. By lashing out at her verbally—which happened all the time in her family—I was re-creating a pattern to which she could relate.
Dr. Martinez points out that the way to untangle childhood wounding is by practicing the behavior and emotions that are the antidotes to the wounding. So, for example, the antidote for shame is honor. Honoring yourself or behaving honorably by standing up for others is the opposite of feeling ashamed and not worthy of love and support. Brene Brown points out that the key characteristic of shame-resilient people is that they believe they are worthy of love. So I encourage you to follow Dr. Martinez’s advice: To move past shame, think of a time when you felt honored and respected. And bring this memory to mind each and every time you feel shame.
Guilt comes from the belief that you’re not doing enough. And the whole reason you think you’re not doing enough is because you’ve been led to believe that your presence, your being, is not enough. When you feel unworthy of love and acceptance, then you can’t buy enough or do enough for others to fill in the emptiness.
Obligation also springs from the feeling of unworthiness. As Anne Wilson Schaef says, “Workaholism is the addiction of choice in those who feel unworthy.” When I felt guilty for being away from home so much when my kids were little, I overshot by buying too much! This was the only way I knew to make up for my absence and my guilt about it, although I didn’t fully understand that at the time.
If you are in a situation this holiday season in which you are being shamed, such as your mother criticizing your lifestyle (or hairstyle), this may open up a wound in the small child you once were—the child who simply wanted her mother’s unconditional love. It takes courage and compassion for yourself to untangle and disassociate from these harmful patterns. One thing that helps me be more compassionate is to remember that most parents (and family members) have simply passed their own unhealed wounds down to us. It doesn’t mean they are right. And it doesn’t give them permission to continue. But it may help you handle the situation with grace.
Some time ago, I had a frank discussion with my children about gift giving. And we all agreed to halt the practice entirely. They were as relieved as I was. Instead, we make each other’s birthdays a big deal. And at Christmas, we create a slideshow of the prior year and have a game of “Yankee Swap,” for which we each buy a gift for under $20. (We then draw numbers, and the person with #1 picks a gift. Then all the ensuing players can either keep the gift they pick OR take the gift that someone else has already opened.) It’s absolutely hilarious! My house is always filled with guests who are close friends and who add to the fun. We then enjoy a meal together and all go see a holiday movie. It’s a most wonderful day, one in which there is rest, laughter, and good food. We feel grateful to be a family (both blood and chosen) and to have shared another year with one another.
Let’s all do what we can to move from survival to joy this season. Yes—the surprise of Christmas morning with little ones is delightful. And so is finding the perfect gift for a loved one. But when this becomes an obligation, not a joy, it’s time to question the program.
p.s. Oftentimes, the same people who criticize or shame us have very little tolerance for what Martinez calls the “exalted” emotions of joy and happiness. Hence, after a certain amount of good cheer, people with unhealed wounds simply cannot tolerate any more happiness and love, and they will become critical, pick a fight, or whatever. It is at that point that you must detach, leave, and, hardest of all, simply ALLOW the family member to be angry for as long as he or she needs, until you are no longer the target of their hostility. It’s your job to protect your own heart and to become shame resilient and impervious to manipulation through guilt or obligation. It takes time, but is worth it—trust me!