“This time of year is tricky.”
That’s what the Vienna pharaoh says about holidays. Our shoulders slump as we hear this from a licensed marriage and family therapist. Along with joy and love, the holidays can bring tension and combative energy when spending time with family. That’s why Pharaoh, who focuses on helping people heal unresolved trauma from family wounds, believes it’s helpful to “have some tangible things when you walk into that space.”
Here, in her uniquely compassionate way, she guides us through how to find peace, calm, and even just a sense of being okay in the midst of awkward family dynamics.
CONVERSATION WITH THE PHARAOH OF VIENNA, LFMT
Vienna, the holidays are here, and with them come many feelings. As a clinician, what do you see about people’s feelings about family dynamics this time of year?
There is always frenetic energy, expectations, shame, guilt and boundlessness. There are all those things. Some people say it’s their favorite time of year, and others say it’s their least favorite time of year. Going home is wonderful for some, but for others, going home is a place of abuse, criticism or limitlessness. There are also reminders of what is pending. Family dynamics are the gift that keeps on giving.
I hear a lot of people say that they feel like a grown, mature, wise adult, and then when they walk through that door, they’re 13 again. They enter mentally and emotionally prepared, and then just one look, one comment sets them off.
Why is this happening?
The reason we move so easily is because we have so much indecision. That’s what my book is about: the unresolved pain in our family systems and how it plays out in our adult lives. And when we return to the source of our pain, we remind ourselves in these moments that they can not admit things or they are not changed. Maybe dad still drinks that much, or mom still comments on my body. Whatever it is, we’re re-entering this space where we see so many of the same things as always. So there is a real stress that happens to the system.
In therapy I often ask, ‘How are you feeling right now?’ when one feels reactive or activated. We can often feel like a teenager who is ready to fight or a seven-year-old who has no voice. When we re-enter these systems, where there is still indiscernibility, it is easy to revert to these young and immature states and revert to the pattern or role we once had as a child.
How can we begin to prevent this from happening?
A lot of it is preparing for, choosing and looking at: How do I succeed here? So instead of going home for three nights and staying in your childhood home, maybe you can go on a day trip or get an Airbnb or hotel. It’s about choosing something that allows you some space. It’s about setting yourself up for success.
I always remind people, and I mean this with a lot of love, to stop being surprised that it’s not surprising. For example, we can be like, Wait, this person who has Always behaved this way behaved this way again? No way! We must stop being surprised by what we know about people. It’s hard to do in family systems because we want to hold on to the hope that maybe they will be different, maybe something will change, maybe this time we’ll keep negotiating and bargaining with ourselves to let hope in. Hope is a beautiful thing. We know that hope saves us in moments, sure. But sometimes hope keeps us clinging to our suffering:
If I still hope you’ll be different than I know you are
If I keep hoping you’ll acknowledge me when I know you can’t
If I still hope you’ll show up differently when you won’t
Then we constantly drag ourselves into pain and suffering. So it’s about recognition: what do I know to be true? Can you admit what you are I know to be true instead of what you hope to be true before you walk into a family dinner or visit? Can you learn how to be in touch with where and who they are? Many of us have this fantasy of what our family will look like or how that particular parent will appear, and we cling to this fantasy. That clinging is a protection that distracts us from truly accepting who they are, their abilities, and where their limitations are.
What if those limitations are too much to handle? Let’s say Uncle Bob is too mean, or Cousin Phil never listens.
For some people, of course, this means they will be alienated, or cut off. There are certainly times when it is appropriate not to have someone in your life. But I find that most of the time most people don’t want to. Most people I talk to wish to find a way to be connected to their family. We want to find a way. But when we can’t accept who they are and how they appear, that’s when we get caught up in a dance or a power struggle. In a way, we choose not to withdraw from the dance. There is that part that will go to battle with them by becoming trapped in the patterns we have. But liberation happens when we say, ‘I’m going to stop asking you to do this.’ When we acknowledge the sadness, grief, and pain that they are not the person, human, parent, or adult we would like them to be, and when we allow that and interact with them based on their abilities, what happens?
Think: What happens when I walk in knowing exactly who you are and what you are capable of? How do I experience this dinner or these few days differently?
The essence of the choice here seems critical. Will you dig further into the idea of a choice?
So much of our trauma or pain comes from the absence of our choice. And so, for our healing, choice is necessary because, as children and teenagers, whenever something is traumatic or vulnerable, it’s because there was an environment where you didn’t have a choice. So as you move through this and when I say ‘this’ I mean your healing, moving differently in family relationships, choice has to be a part of it. And really, it’s even as simple as going away for three days or one day, staying with your family or in a hotel, or getting up from your desk and going for a walk. It is recognizing where your choice is.
Some may say, ‘I have no choice because my mom would be so hurt if I didn’t stay for a week.’ There is guilt, shame, criticism, and many things families can do to pressure us, even as adults, to do things we may not want to do. Sometimes people may prefer to stay three days because it is more tolerable than the feelings of guilt, fighting, or shame that can arise from not staying. People have to discern what is more tolerable for them. But again, it’s about bringing your awareness to where your choices are, and then finding the choices within the choices to give yourself a sense of grounding.
What tools can help find that footing in these tense times with the family?
There are kinds of things that are very important in this environment to feel like a witness. For example, if you go [to the dinner or visit], do you have a partner or friend with you? Do you have a friend on speed dial where you can hang out and call and acknowledge each other? This could be someone who can relate to what you are going through. It is important to feel heard and understood and to have a teammate.
I also love the voice memo you can listen to. Take this note from your wise, mature adult beforehand. Like I said, sometimes, in this dynamic, we are no longer wise, mature adults. Suddenly, one comment and we’re teenagers ready to fight again. When this happens, we can listen to our voice note.
Here’s an example of a recording voice memo:
“Okay, it happened again, didn’t it? You must be really excited and probably want to wrestle with dad. You want to prove to him why what he said is not true. And I hear you. But we’re not going to deal with someone who has to win and has to be right. It is a path that takes you away from yourself. So, I see you, I hear you, I respect you and I acknowledge you. And now let’s take a walk.’
You can record some version of it so that when you press play, you can hear your wise, mature adult self admitting what you already knew was going to happen. I love the voice note because there is something about hearing ourselves in a regulated, peaceful moment.
Finally, what is your advice for dealing with acute moments of tension, such as when someone makes an offensive comment at the dinner table?
This is tricky for many because there is a desire to speak your truth and stand up for something you don’t agree with or don’t want to hear. There are political, religious and social issues on which people have differences, and we know that family systems have differences. When people say something so offensive or so far from what is true for you, I believe the question is: do you engage or not? Sometimes we may think we are silent or complicit if we don’t engage. I believe there are more nuances to this because fighting someone when it’s not going anywhere is not worth it. And I don’t know if it’s worth it to you.
So in these moments with the family, where people are committed to their own views and perspectives and are not here to have an open dialogue, it’s about thinking: Will my choice lead me to more suffering or peace? I’m swaying towards disengagement. That doesn’t mean you agree with what they say. But you can get up from the table and admit what you believe to yourself, a friend, or a partner. Again, I’m leaning towards non-engagement here because it doesn’t go anywhere in these situations. All it does is cause more trouble, disconnection, conflict and horrible feelings.
Vienna Pharaon is a licensed marriage and family therapist and national bestselling author The Origin of You: How Breaking Family Patterns Can Liberate the Way We Live and Love. Pharaon is also hosting a new podcast This continuesLearn more at viennapharaon.com and follow Vienna at @mindfulmft.
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