“This time of year is difficult.”
So says Vienna Faraone about the holidays. Our shoulders slump as we hear this from the licensed marriage and family therapist. Along with joy and love, the holidays can bring tension and fighting energy when gathering with family. That’s why Faraone – who focuses on helping people heal unresolved trauma from wounds of family origin – believes it’s beneficial to “have some tangible things when you enter that space.”
Here, in his remarkably compassionate way, he guides us through how to find peace, calm, and even just a sense of well-being in a complicated family dynamic.
A CONVERSATION WITH VIENNA PHARAON, LFMT
Vienna, the holidays are here, and with them come many feelings. As a clinician, what do you see in terms of people’s feelings around family dynamics this time of year?
There is always frenetic energy, expectations, shame, guilt and the absence of boundaries. There are all the things. Some people say this is their favorite time of the year, and others say this is their most enjoyable time of the year. Going home is beautiful for some, but for others, going home is where abuse, criticism or the absence of limits. It is also where the memories of what is not resolved are. Family dynamics are the gift that keeps on giving.
I’ve heard so many people say they feel like a mature, wise adult, and then when they walk through that door, they’re 13 years old again. They go in prepared mentally and emotionally, and then just one look, one comment, sets them off.
Why is that happening?
The reason we leave so easily is because we have so much indecision. That’s what my book is all 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 remember in these moments that they he can’t recognize things or i don’t have changed Maybe dad drinks a lot too, or mom always makes that comment about my body. Regardless, we’re entering this space again where we’re seeing a lot of the same things we’ve always done. So, there is a real stress that happens to the system.
In therapy, I often ask, “How are you feeling right now?” when someone feels reactive or triggered. Often, we can feel like a teenager who is ready for battle or a seven-year-old who has no voice. When we re-enter these systems, where there is still irresolution, it is easy to return to these young and immature states and fall back into the pattern or role we had as a child.
How can we begin to stop this from happening?
Most of it is the preparation, the choice, and looking: How can I succeed here? So instead of going home for three nights and staying in your childhood home, maybe you can take a day trip or get an Airbnb or a 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 very dearly, to stop being surprised by the inevitable. For example, we can be like, Wait, this person has always behaved like that is acting like that again? No way! We have to stop being surprised by what we know about people. This is difficult to do in family systems because we want to keep a hope that maybe they will be different, maybe something will change, maybe this time… We will constantly negotiate and negotiate with ourselves to allow hope to enter. Hope is a beautiful thing. We know that hope saves us in moments, of course. But sometimes hope clings to our suffering:
If I keep hoping you’ll be different than I know you are…
If I keep hoping you’ll recognize me when I know you can’t…
If I keep hoping that it will appear differently when you don’t…
That’s when we continue to drag ourselves into pain and suffering. So, it’s about recognizing: What do I know that is true? You can recognize what you to know to be true instead of what you hope to be true before entering the family dinner or visit? Can you learn how to relate to where and who I am? So many of us have this fantasy of what our family will look like or how that particular parent will show up, and we cling to that fantasy. That attachment is a protection that distracts us from truly accepting who we are, our abilities, and where our limitations are.
What if these limitations are too much to handle? Let’s say Uncle Bob is too mean, or Cousin Phil never listens.
For some people, of course, it means that they have to be removed, or that they have to be cut. There are certainly cases where it is appropriate not to have someone in your life. But I find most of the time that most people don’t want that. Most people I talk to you want to find a way to be in a relationship with his family. We want to find a way. But when we can’t accept who they are and how they present themselves, that’s when we get caught up in the dance or the power struggle. In some ways, we choose not to pull out of the dance. There is this part that will go into battle with them becoming horn-locked in the models we have. But liberation happens when we say, “I’m going to stop looking to do that.” When we recognize the pain, sadness and pain of not being the person, human, relative or adult that we would like to be, and when we let it be and interact with them based on their ability, what happens?
Consider: What happens when you go in knowing exactly who you are and exactly what you are capable of? How do you experience this dinner or these few days differently?
The essence of choice seems critical here. Dig deeper into the idea of choice?
So much of our trauma or pain comes from the absence of our choice. And so, for our healing, choice is necessary because, like children and teenagers, whenever something is traumatic or hurt, it is because there was an environment in which you had no choice. So as you move through this, and when I say “this,” I mean your healing, navigating the family relationship differently—choice has to be a part of it. And really, it’s even as simple as going for three days or one day, staying at your family’s house or in a hotel, or getting off the table and going for a walk. It recognizes where your choice is.
Some may say, “I have no choice because my mother would be so hurt if I didn’t stay for the week.” There is guilt, shame, criticism, and many things that families can do to pressure us, even as grown adults, to do things that we may not want to do. Sometimes, people can rather stay for three days, because it is more tolerable than the trip of guilt, fight or shame that can be 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 choices in the choice to give you a basic sense.
What tools can help you find that base in these tense times with the family?
There are types of things that are very important in this environment to make you feel witnessed. 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 get away and call and get to know 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 like a voice memo that you can listen to. Record this memo from your wise and mature adult self first. As I said, sometimes, in these dynamics, we are no longer wise, mature adults. Suddenly, one comment and we’re back to being a teenager ready for battle. When this happens, we can hear our voice note.
Here is an example of a voice note to record:
‘Okay, it happened again, didn’t it? You must be really cool, and you probably want to go into battle with dad. You want to prove him because what he said was wrong. And I hear you. But we are not going to engage with someone who has to win and has to be right. It is a path that takes you further away from yourself. So I see you, I hear you, I honor you and I recognize you. Now let’s go for a walk.
You can record a version of it, so when you press play, you can hear your wise, mature self recognizing what you knew was going to happen. I like the voice memo because there is something about hearing ourselves in a regulated and calm moment.
Finally, what is your advice for dealing with acute moments of tension, like when someone makes an insulting comment at the dinner table?
This is a problem for many because there is a desire to speak your truth and defend something that you do not agree with or that you do not like to hear. There are political, religious and social issues that people have differences over, and we know that family systems have differences. When people say something so insulting or so far from what is true for you, I believe that this is a question of: Are you committed or not committed? Sometimes, we may think we are quiet or complicit if we don’t commit. I believe there is more nuance in this because to fight someone when it is not going anywhere is not worth it. And I don’t know if it is valuable for you.
So, in these moments with the family, where people are committed to their views and perspectives and are not there to have an open dialogue, it is about thinking: Will my choice lead to more suffering or peace? I swing towards non-engagement. This does not mean that you agree with what they say. But you can get up from the table and recognize 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 distress, disconnection, conflict and terrible feelings.
Vienna Pharaon is a licensed marriage and family therapist and national bestselling author The origins of you: How broken family patterns can free the way we live and love. Pharaon is also host of the new podcast This keeps happeningLearn more at viennapharaon.com and follow Vienna at @mindfulmft.
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