Did you ever notice that no matter how old you are or what you’ve done in life, when you see family you seem to regress into the role you were as a kid again? Regression seems as good a topic as any for the post-holiday season when so many of us are seeing family and turning inexplicably back into the people we thought we were long rid of. It can be so frustrating, to have worked so hard on yourself for so many years, only to find that every holiday season you snap back into your place and perform the same dance like a figurine on a cuckoo clock.
Family are the people we never chose in the first place but end up choosing over and over in other forms. They’re the template for all of our relationships, good or bad, and the manifestations of all the things about ourselves that we like or dislike as we see those mirrored in them. They either remember everything or weren’t there for it, and depending on your family pattern one of those will hurt worse. Tolstoy said in Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike and unhappy families are all unhappy in their own unique ways. After being a social worker for 10 years I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a true “happy family,” but maybe I’m biased.
A lot of what I do as a therapist is try to help people process the things that either happened or didn’t happen when they were growing up, finding where those gaps are, and figuring out ways that they can give themselves the things that their own caregivers missed. The idea is to reprogram their ways of thinking and start healthier patterns. It can be hard to go back and see family after doing all of this work, though, because people expect for you to continue to play the role you’ve always played. When you change, you change the system, and that means that others have to change too, or at least re-examine their role. This can create resentment, especially if one person in the family has normally carried a negative label like “screw-up” or “crazy” and has acted as a scapegoat that manifests the problems in the larger family system.
I often find when talking to clients answers for things that I’d like to understand in my own life. One client I recently saw mentioned that she had noticed the extended family tending to put down another family member. My client knew that this family member had had a difficult upbringing and has some issues but has come very far and that growth hasn’t been acknowledged by the rest of the family. She said that she makes an effort to recognize the positives with this family member and now finds that spending time with this person has helped her deal with family situations herself.
We are all always learning, growing, and changing, but it can be hard for those people closest to us to acknowledge these differences in us. It can hurt so much when the people we most want to feel proud of us have nothing but criticism and challenges for our successes, but that doesn’t mean that those successes don’t exist. Sometimes we have to be our own cheerleader, or take on cheerleading for someone else like my client has done. Above all else it’s important to remember that you are what you make of yourself, not what others tell you you are.