Better Living

An Emotional Toolkit for Family Gatherings

BY Nancy Colier TIMEDecember 11, 2021 PRINT

Over the next few months, many of us will attend in-person family gatherings, maybe for the first time in close to two years.

While being with family in real life can be nourishing and joyful, it can also make us feel anxious and stressed. As it turns out, for many people, the emotional and physical distance enabled by computer screens created a welcome shift in family dynamics that actually eased certain stressors, and often made family connections feel a bit safer and more manageable. The fact is, being in the physical presence of family is quite different than seeing little video boxes on a screen (that we can easily mute and disconnect).

So, how can you show up for this unique moment, and use the lessons you’ve learned and suffering you’ve experienced during the pandemic to return to in-person family gatherings with a renewed sense of gratitude and appreciation? How do you return with love and patience, and use all that you’ve been through these last 22 months to reunite with family with an attitude of acceptance and love—particularly with those whom you’ve struggled with or been hurt by in the past? Ultimately, how can you be with family in a new way that reflects your post-pandemic evolution?

What follows is a plan for the post-pandemic return to the family dinner table.

Compassion and Curiosity

To start with, you can set the intention to approach your family with an attitude of compassion and kindness, fueled by the awareness that everyone has suffered during this time, and also changed. That said, you can enter with an attitude of curiosity and kindness, and stay open to discover who and how everyone is at that moment, after all we’ve collectively been through.

Hardware and Oranges

Furthermore, you can make use of something a friend once told me. She said, “You don’t go to the hardware store to buy oranges.” Over the years, I’ve found this reminder to be profoundly useful in my life, and a wisdom nugget to always bring with me when attending family gatherings.

What so often happens to us—particularly when we interact with family—is that we keep trying to get something from someone who is not capable of giving it to us. I myself had a relative who, for almost as long as she was alive, I tried to make interested in me. I tried unsuccessfully to get her to ask me a personal question, or show signs of remembering anything I’d ever told her about myself. For two decades, I suffered with resentment and disbelief and fought against the reality of who she was.

Surrender to Reality

In the same way that you had to accept that Covid was here, even though you didn’t want it to be, and that it wasn’t up to you when and if it goes away, you can use this moment to accept that it’s not up to you who your family members are or how they behave. You can choose to enter with an acceptance of who the people in your family actually are—in reality, not fantasy. In the same way that you had to surrender to the pandemic, you can surrender to the reality of your family, whether you want this reality or not.

Just as you wouldn’t go to the hardware store for oranges, or keep trying to plant orange trees in the appliances aisle and suffering because they won’t grow there, you can also stop going to the people in your family for what they’re incapable of offering or being for you. So stop torturing yourself by trying to make them what they’re not, and grieving and hating the fact that they’re not that person.

Don’t Bite the Hook

Finally, you can enter your family gatherings over the coming months with the clear directive to not “bite the hook.” When it comes to family, it usually takes just seconds for us to return to the age of 12, or 5, or perhaps whichever age feels most painful. No matter how much time has passed, it doesn’t take long for us, no matter how old we are, to feel like that same little person at our childhood dinner table. We quickly revert to an old experience of ourselves, old beliefs, old wounds, and old narratives about other people and ourselves.

This is not a failing on our part, but often an actual neurological response to emotional pain held in the deeper part of the brain, which actually takes over from the front of the brain (where you know you’re a grown-up with different emotional resources). But in truth, 22 months apart can quickly become irrelevant if you are triggered even before hanging up your coat. Your mantra, which you should have ready for the upcoming family gatherings, should be “Don’t bite the hook.”

In other words, when you feel triggered (which might happen even though you’re happy to be there), you can make a commitment to not chase that trigger, and not feed it with the habitual narrative about what always or never happens, and all the other toxic narratives. You nod, acknowledge the trigger inside yourself, and remind yourself that you don’t go to the hardware store for oranges, and that this is the reality of this person or relationship. With intention and kindness, you consciously say to yourself (however many times you have to say it), don’t bite the hook.

A Post-Pandemic Return to the Family Dinner Table

  1. Come with compassion and gratitude, remembering and assuming that everyone has suffered (and maybe changed) over this difficult time.
  2. Remind yourself that you don’t go to the hardware store to buy oranges. Trying to get something from someone that they simply cannot offer causes you to suffer.
  3. Surrender to the reality of who your family members are, rather than holding them to a fantasy of who you wish they were or want them to be.
  4. Arrive with the internal mantra Don’t bite the hook. Don’t chase your triggers and triggering narratives down the rabbit hole to a hellscape of your own creation.

It’s exciting and joyful to be returning to in-person family gatherings. The prospect of actually getting to hug and be near those we love again is rich with profundity and meaning. It may also feel a little bit daunting to actually be in the room with family, and to give up the buffer and safety of the screen. Don’t fault yourself for possibly feeling a bit of trepidation. It’s normal; it’s a big deal to reenter these relationships in the flesh. Relish the gratitude and love you feel, enter with awareness, and make plans to take good care of yourself.

Nancy Colier
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, thought leader, public speaker, and the author of "Can't Stop Thinking: How to Let Go of Anxiety and Free Yourself from Obsessive Rumination,” “The Power of Off,” and the upcoming “The Emotionally Exhausted Woman: Why You’re Depleted and How to Get What You Need” (November, 2022.)
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