Does going home for the holidays just … throw you off your game somehow?
You’re making efforts toward self-improvement and you feel a noticeable change in yourself and how you interact with others. But then, you return home to spend time with your family and suddenly you find yourself backsliding. Your frustration boils over (perhaps out loud or through a silent shut-down), so you retreat. Then, the next time you’re with your family, the same backsliding happens all over again.
Well, you are not alone.
This phenomenon has been studied by psychologists who study individual behaviors within the context of their families of origin. When I was studying for my master’s degree, I learned about the “family systems theory” lens that some psychologists use. Being introduced to the family systems concepts helped me better understand my own family dynamics and how it impacts my personal growth.
Here’s what I learned, and how you can apply these concepts to your own life — especially when you’re spending more time with your family during the holiday season.
When you were growing up, your family of origin (parents, siblings, and any close extended family) developed a way that they all relate to one another separately and as a whole. This often involves “roles” that each individual unintentionally adopted, such as the “peacemaker” or “black sheep.”
Each person’s role in the family involves their innate personality traits, but could be influenced by a number of other factors, such as birth order or significant events from your childhood (i.e. divorce, death, or a big move). Roles are then perpetuated by the stories your family most commonly tells about you from your childhood and the way you interact when you are all together.
If these roles exist in your family, it can be easy to stay stuck in those ruts. Psychologists describe this dynamic with the term homeostasis: the tendency we have for things to stay the same.
Because change is hard and can feel uncomfortable, our brains subconsciously make us think it will be easier and more “comfortable” if our roles and interactions within our family stay the same. This means your family members will continue to treat you like your childhood-self — and in turn, you will most often respond to these interactions like you always did.
The good news is that with recognition of this “homeostasis” dynamic and some work, things can get un-stuck. Here are some steps to take to establish a new, healthier normal.
1. Have patience. Don’t give up on your family too easily. Your family knows you, loves you, and (in general*) wants the best for you. It just may be frustrating to be around them sometimes, especially if you find yourself repeatedly in the same conflicts or you feel ignored.
For example, perhaps you’re trying to be more assertive, but your family continues to respond by talking over you. Know that they’re not trying to be hurtful: they are just acting the way they’ve all grown accustomed to. Have patience and hold on to hope that things can change with time.
*A caveat here: If there is abuse in your family, or if being around your family is causing you to fall back into harmful habits like alcohol abuse or drug addiction, it would be prudent to consider taking time away from them.
2. Identify your “role” in your family. Common roles psychologists use include:
- Troublemaker or “black sheep”
- Lost child
- Golden child
- Mascot or clown
Just keep in mind that these are labels to summarize a role, but don’t capture the whole story. The roles we adopted had a light side and a shadow side — they both helped your family flourish and perhaps contributed to conflict.
If you were the “class clown,” for example, perhaps you helped bring levity to tense situations — an important coping skill for the family system. At the same time, maybe your jokes sometimes went too far and caused hurt feelings.
3. Work past homeostasis by dialoguing with your family. Communication will be helpful in helping everyone move forward together. Some families are prone to conflict, and dialogue might quickly become tense. Other families are conflict-averse, and will try to avoid dialoguing about change altogether. Whichever style your family has, approach your dialogue with humility and openness: this isn’t just about you. Maybe you’ll discover that a sibling has been trying to change, but you’ve been unknowingly inhibiting it.
4. Recognize your part. The homeostasis dynamics in our family might be somewhat “responsible” for encouraging us to act like we do, but ultimately, each of us is responsible for our own actions.
You may find that your family is best at helping you identify what your role has been because they interacted closely with you for so many years. When you’re dialoguing with your family, this could be an interesting conversation to introduce if there’s enough comfort to engage in it. Take note of what they see in you — both your gifts and your shortcomings — even if it might be uncomfortable to hear.
If you’re like me, your first reaction to what they see may be extreme defensiveness. Give yourself some time to process. I was personally in denial of the shortcomings of my own role as a “leader” until a significant argument with my younger brother shed light on the bossy and controlling tendencies I exhibited. Over time, I came to realize my control-freak tendencies weren’t just negatively impacting my brother, but touched almost all of my relationships — including my friends and my husband.
5. Ask for help. You are not alone on your journey to greater wholeness. We know that God is love, which means that the love we experience in our family is a prime way in which God acts in our lives. Don’t be shy about taking this healing to prayer — whether that’s through journaling or meditation or even just a regular evening walk to get out of the house and find perspective. Involving God in this process will give you strength and help you be vulnerable and honest.
6. Look for and celebrate new dynamics. Change takes time and depends on everyone being open to self-reflection. Introducing this discussion won’t change things overnight — and maybe some family members will be unable to change. That is outside of your control.
No family is perfect, just as no individual is perfect. My family is still working through issues (and I still have a lot of personal work to do), but lately I’ve noticed our family gatherings have more peace to them than they previously did. It’s been promising to see us grow beyond our childhood roles and grow into better versions of ourselves, both individually and as a family. I hope that you and your family will see the same.