Around the holiday times, when some of us spend so much time with family or revisiting childhood haunts, it can be extremely triggering.
I spent last Christmas traveling with my family, and I swear by the end of the trip I had devolved into a blubbering twelve year old.
It was not pretty.
I am a mostly rational, quite competent, incredibly self-developed independent woman in her thirties.
What the hell was I doing reliving all my childhood grievances against my parents and my siblings?
Had my years in therapy really been for naught?
There is this fascinating thing we do when we go home where we fall into old patterns. Old ideas of who we are and how we relate to our family members.
It makes sense. We were those versions of ourselves during our formative years, and that stuff sticks.
But they are still just roles.
Stories we tell ourselves, or were told, about who were are.
The nerd. The jock. The class clown. The prima donna. The loner. The dutiful daughter.
And then, there’s the defining adjectives:
Lazy. Annoying. Loud. Show off. Mean. Needy.
These things stick.
Whether they come from family, peers, or teachers.
Whether they are self imposed or assigned to us, we bend to fill them and they begin to take on a life of their own.
The truth is our identities are malleable. We are not any one person, any one way all the time. We speak differently to the UPS guy we think is hot to the cop who just pulled us over for speeding to the boss who we report to. Our postures, our vocal intonations, or body language – it all shifts depending on the situation we’re in and whom we’re engaging with.
We are essentially many people.
We are all capable of boldness, of debilitating fear.
We are all capable of great love, of incredible cruelty.
We are all capable of inspiring leadership, of quiet following.
So I would invite you to play this holiday season with who else you might be around your family.
(I want to recognize right here that not everyone has the luxury of traveling home to visit loved ones, and not everyone has loved ones to visit. And perhaps this exercise is more about imagining how you might be with your family when you visit them in your memories.)
I would say, start small. Don’t jump from quiet nerd to freewheeling rebel.
But maybe aim for wise cracking nerd?
Or how about bringing in a new passion, like nerd who loves to cook?
One of my biggest discoveries was that I naturally defaulted to certain topics of conversation around my family. I talked at length about things they already knew about me – my job, my friends. But I didn’t introduce new subjects of what I was up to. I didn’t want to fall outside their idea of me.
So I made it a point to start bringing up the weird and edgy self-development courses I was taking. Things I was sure would never resonate with them, and didn’t necessarily make sense with who I was in the family construct.
It was uncomfortable at first. Very uncomfortable.
They were fine. Maybe a little quiet and unsure what to respond, but open to it.
I was uncomfortable one.
I felt like an alien, bringing my “real” outside life into the bubble of who we had always been to each other.
And the next time I visited, I brought up more about how I was experimenting with my diet, and what that meant in terms of what I could eat and not eat.
That felt brave, asking to go against the grain (literally). Turning down foods that were family traditions.
I felt like I was betraying everyone.
Again, they were fine. Maybe a bit sad for me, but really okay.
And slowly I began to see how I was the one reinforcing this idea of who I am around my family.
I had gotten so used to the role that I automatically fell into it, without ever challenging it.
I’m wondering if this holiday time, this season of traveling home, might be a good time to experiment on yourself.
Can you talk about your dating life? Can you bring up the anxieties you’re feeling at work? Can you share how you’ve been longing to travel more?
Really, pick any topic that’s near and dear to you, that you’ve been (perhaps unintentionally) hiding from your family.
See how you can start to chip away at who you are to them.
And maybe grow into a more fuller version of yourself, everywhere that you are.