While Christmas is a joyful time of the year, many of us dread the family gatherings. If your family is anything like mine, deep wounds and suppressed emotions surface during family festivities. Every year, tension inevitably invites itself to the party.
Whether it’s divisive comments about politics or religion, unsolicited advice, or a family member harping on how we raise our children, most of us have at least one relative who knows how to get under our skin. By the end of the gathering, we can feel defensive, inadequate and, quite frankly, picked on. Over the years, we may begin to anticipate these negative interactions, which can lead to dread instead of joy.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to heal these family divides and set yourself free from the holiday dread? That may sound like a Christmas miracle, but that’s exactly what I did.
A few years ago, dread turned into excitement, and the holiday gatherings became a blessing. What prompted the change? Did my uncle stop making inflammatory political comments over dinner? Nope. Did my in-laws stop hounding me about my children not learning to be “part of a team” because they don’t play league sports? Nope. Did my stepmother stop making comments about how I’m a “disgrace” to women because I choose to homeschool my children? Nope. Nobody intentionally changed—except me.
We all know you can’t control people, and you can’t change them either. However, most of us want people to act a certain way. For instance, we believe a parent is “supposed” to be protective, and a friend is “supposed” to be supportive. When they don’t live up to our expectations, we feel disappointed.
For years, I wanted my family members to act a certain way. In fact, I expected them to act a certain way. However, carrying those misplaced expectations routinely led to disappointment because I was expecting them to be something they were not capable of being.
It’s like wanting someone to be an ocean that can hold a quintillion gallons of water, but they are just a jug that can hold only a few quarts. I was expecting my relatives to hold the whole ocean. And, when they failed to meet my expectation, I directed my disappointment toward them. However, it was my misplaced expectation that created the tension in the first place.
Once I realized misplaced expectations were at the core of my emotional distress, I changed my perception. Instead of becoming frustrated and questioning, “Why won’t they accept me for who I am?” I began asking myself, “Why am I not accepting them for who they are?”
Consequently, I decided to forgive each family member. I forgave them for not being the way I wanted them to be. Admittedly, forgiveness is often met with resistance. I struggled with it for years because when you feel you’ve been wronged, you often view forgiveness as thinking that the person’s actions are acceptable. However, that’s not what forgiveness means.
Forgiveness is a gift to yourself. When you forgive, you are saying to yourself that you are no longer willing to carry the burden; you are no longer willing to spend your energy harboring negative emotions from your past; you are no longer willing to allow the past to define your present moment. When you forgive, you set yourself free.
In my pursuit of forgiveness, I’ve encountered many instances where I felt I could not forgive a family member because the trauma and subsequent emotional distress was too great. However, once I realized I had an expectation for how I wanted them to be and they did not live up to my expectation, the door to forgiveness opened.
Likewise, I was able to forgive myself for placing those expectations on my family. By expecting them to behave a certain way, I created a situation where I set them up for failure. Once I realized I was trying to control them, I took responsibility for my part. I forgave myself for not being the way I wanted me to be.
Once I walked through the door to forgiveness, something magical happened. I released the misplaced expectations, and for the first time, I saw each of my relatives for who they truly are, instead of seeing them as what they talked about. I saw beyond the political views and the criticisms. I saw beyond the cheap shots and the bullying. I finally saw the common ground that exists among all of us—a wounded child.
The truth is, we all have a wounded child inside of us, one who is scared and longing for love and acceptance. So, when your dad criticizes you for your choice in boyfriends or your mom badgers you for the millionth time about finally settling down and getting married so she can have grandchildren, their comments are actually not about you. Their comments stem from their own fear and insecurity because they have probably never truly felt loved and accepted—just as you probably don’t feel completely loved and accepted by them.
Once I identified with the wounded child instead of the superficial comments that I had allowed to define my relatives, I no longer viewed them as judging me and trying to control my life. Instead, I saw them as scared children looking for love, just like me. I realized that I was expecting them to give me something they are not capable of giving because they are not oceans; they are mere jugs.
In that moment of truth, I was able to love and accept them for who they are instead of trying to change them into what I wanted them to be. In doing so, I set myself free, and I set my family free from my judgment.
Even though I had not confronted anyone, and the forgiveness occurred in my own mind, the ripple effect was profound. During the next family gathering, the energy of the room shifted from tension to peace. Why? Because I had changed.
For instance, when my father-in-law passed judgment about my dietary choices, instead of reacting in a defensive manner, I paused and imagined his wounded child. He was 6 years old, scared, alone and just wanting someone to love him. In my mind, I reached out my arms and embraced his inner child. I held him tight and told him that he is safe and loved and that I would never leave him.
Picturing his inner child allowed me to identify our common ground, and instantly, I forgave him for not being the way I wanted him to be. That simple act of forgiveness shifted my energy from fear to love. Consequently, my response to his judgment was no longer about me defending my choices. I was no longer attached to the outcome of the conversation because I was no longer trying to convince him that my choices in life were right. Being right no longer mattered. I stopped trying to change him based on my misplaced expectations of who I wanted him to be. I no longer needed his approval. Instead, I focused on simply loving his wounded child.
Once I created that single positive interaction, a domino effect ensued. Every subsequent interaction for the day shifted from fear to love, from tension to peace, and from dread to joy. It was a Christmas miracle.
You can create your own Christmas miracle, too. As you prepare for your family gathering this holiday season, give yourself the gift of forgiveness. Free yourself from the burden of carrying negative emotions. Free yourself from the stress that comes with holding a grudge. Picture each relative as a wounded child and forgive them for not being the way you wanted them to be. Then forgive yourself for saddling your loved ones with misplaced expectations. It may be the gift that finally sets you free this holiday season.
This article was first published in Radiant Life Magazine.