Why Spending Time With Family Can Feel So Challenging (And What To Do About It)
As my husband, two kids, and I were driving to our hometown this past Thanksgiving weekend, I found myself asking, “Why is it often so stressful for so many of us to spend time with our families?” I’ve asked that question many times before, but this time the answer that came to me seemed simple. Triggers. Of course. It all comes down to triggers. You see, left to it’s own devices, our nervous system functions based on what triggers us in our environment. And because our nervous system develops within the context of our family system, the opportunities are extremely ripe for our triggers to get tripped much more often–and to the core–within the context of our family than in any other environment. These are the relationships in which our triggers were created and established, so it only makes sense that we will be set off more when we spend time here.
Another reason why spending time with family can feel so challenging is that just as with individuals–in relationships, and in family systems–we tend to run our same patterns over and over….and over and over….and over and over. Let me ask you this…before you go into most family situations, are you able to predict , almost to a tee, how things are gonna go down? Your dad is going to say this. Your sister will reply like that. And everyone else will just try to awkwardly avoid eye contact until the whole interaction is over. Or some form of that.
Why are we so predictable? Because these patterns are powerful stuff we’re dealing with. Essentially we’ve created super highways of neural networks in our minds and our nervous systems that just keep running the same play over and over. It’s like the offensive coordinator keeps calling the same non-skilled play and then getting frustrated when it keeps not panning out.
So what is to be done if we choose to spend extended periods of time with the people who have the capability of pushing our buttons more than anyone else on the planet? Find a way to break the pattern. And how do you do that? You get super zen. And that’s easier said than done. You see, in order to over-ride your deeply ingrained neural network, you need to train yourself to get out of reactive mode. And when I say train yourself, I mean train yourself. Like Olympic-caliber-practice-schedule train yourself. For the past 5 to 6 months, I’ve been in training with a Buddhist zen master and though I felt admittedly much more aware and calm this weekend, it was still hard not to react when my trigger was tripped in the context of family dynamics.
Here are the training steps:
- Notice the energy of irritation arising with you
- Breathe and observe how it affects you and where it goes in your body
- Watch yourself refrain from stuffing that energy down or attacking back with it
- Attempt to use the energy of irritation as a vehicle to cultivate something that feels better and is more positively charged, such as patience.
Four steps. Easy, breezy, right? Ummm no. In my experience, this has been one of the most difficult and evolved assignments that I have ever been tasked with…and I’m a highly educated individual who’s completed a whole heck of a lot of assignments in my lifetime! What I’m being asked to do in this assignment is to sit back and observe my fight/flight/freeze survival mechanism and then to over-ride it. And let me tell you….that sucker is primal! Yet this is exactly what will help us manage that trigger-sensitive-personal-assault-rifle-feeling to our nervous system that often comes when we spend time with kin. So the next time you are heading into a stress-inducing family situation (Christmas anyone?)….find yourself a meditation cushion and let the mindfulness training begin!