Christmas is nearly upon us! With the year that has been, it felt like December would never come. I am not sure of what inner experiences are brought up for you when the thought of Christmas comes up, but for me, it generally involves worry and stress. At times like these, I try to stay a little more present and mindful of my situation in comparison to others. I try to keep check of my own privilege.
So what does this mean for me? I have a safe house, a caring supportive family around me, and a cute puppy. The worst and hardest thing facing me on Christmas day is having to split my time between multiple households. This certainly is not the case for everyone, many of us struggle with traumatic family histories and triggering mental health issues around the holidays. So, I want to put forward some suggestions on how to have a COVID safe Christmas.
Our family of origin shapes us in more ways than we can imagine, from the sorts of friendships we have, the careers we choose, and the way our personality develops. All these characteristics and more are shaped by the family world around us. A family acts as a system – a unique ecosystem of sorts. Each member of a family plays a role and is responding and relating to those around them. Family systems therapy is based on Murray Bowen’s family systems theory, which holds that individuals are inseparable from their network of relationships.
Familial roles include the peacekeeper, the leader, the black sheep, or the invisible child. If the system is disturbed through a member leaving (or changing in a signficant way), then roles are reassessed and re-established.
It is no wonder then the power that the family system can yield over us even when we are adults. The amount of transference brought up when engaging in the family system decades after we have moved out and defined ourselves in other ways is astonishing. In certain ‘adult’ moments, we can be brought right back, right back to our little selves, to how we were as children within the broader family system. For some, this may be a welcome return to safe and supportive relationships, for others this may be a trigger of past trauma or problematic relationships that still perpetuate.
Understanding that family systems still operate even as we live as adult children in independent lives is important. This can reinforce and bring about difficult emotions, raising the need for us to take better care of ourselves.
A first step in this is to have a strong sense of boundaries. A common factor in families is an erosion of personal boundaries, which is especially the norm when you are younger. It can be difficult returning to family as an adult and finding that you are treated much the same as you were as a young person. Instilling emotional, physical and psychological boundaries with family members is critical in having a safe and enjoyable time. A safe and respectful boundary may include having firm limits around the amount of time spent at a house, having your own accommodation to return to rather than sleeping in someone else’s space, or having themes and topics of discussion off the table. All these things can improve your sense of autonomy in a situation which is vital in feeling safe.
Finally, having a practice of mindfulness is important to maintaining your mental wellbeing. Usual techniques of grounding, breathing or here-and-now process are important but so is the practice of self-compassion. We ought to give ourselves the room to allow for self-compassion. Compassion involves having empathy for suffering or pain. We are often quick to be our own worst critic, so mean spirited and giving ourselves a very hard time.
Understanding that mistakes and failure are a part of the human experience gives us more mental flexibility and wellbeing. Giving self-compassion in a mindful way involves noticing thoughts of self-criticism and simply being mindful of these as passing thoughts. Not allowing us to be attached or caught up in them but being kind to ourselves.
I will be on leave over the festive season and back to work with my Mannaz clients from the 8 January. Stay well and safe everyone – wishing you all happy holidays.