Bill Harrison is a psychotherapist whose primary interest is working with people in the performing arts. He is also an accomplished musician and an occasional actor. You can find him at billharrisontherapy.com
Why Do I Act Like That? – Your Guide to Being Home for the Holidays
Psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison’s column on life as an artist.
It happens every year. You tell yourself that you’re not going to fight with your sister over who gets to use the bathroom first; you’re not going to let your mother decide which sweater you should wear to Aunt Jenny’s holiday gathering; you’re not going to be badgered into sabotaging your healthy eating plan. And yet … somehow you find yourself allowing these kinds of things to happen when you’re at home with your family of origin.
Falling into old patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors around the holidays is a universal phenomenon. And it’s not necessarily a negative thing — sometimes it feels good to embrace family traditions while being surrounded by the sights, smells and sounds of your youth. If you’re able to enjoy the nostalgic aspects of the holidays, more power to you. But for many of us, there are some relational patterns that get re-enacted at this time of the year that are, shall we say, less enjoyable. And it feels like they happen automatically, without us knowing how or why. Worse yet, we can’t seem to find a way to prevent ourselves from acting in ways that no longer reflect who we are in the present.
In the psychotherapy biz we refer to this falling back into familiar ‘ways of being’ as regression. Regression literally means “returning to a former or less developed state” – in this case, of our psychological development. The kind of regression we’re talking about here is an unconscious response to surrounding ourselves with the people and places of our past. I say it’s unconscious because we are not actively choosing to do these things (clearly, we would prefer NOT to act this way if we could prevent it). So why do we regress when we’re with our parents, siblings and extended family?
It turns out that the ‘why’ is a two-way street. Not only do we slip into old, familiar ‘ways of being’ against our better judgment and desire, but we are also strongly encouraged to do so by the actions of those to whom we return (i.e., parents, siblings, etc.), who are also caught in the same unconscious time warp.
Why You Act That Way
Why do you act like the adolescent you once were when you return to your ancestral surroundings? Because a family, like any other system, depends on its parts to function interdependently to serve the needs of the whole. A family is much like any group or ensemble such as a cast, a dance troupe or a jazz band. Each member has a role to play, and every group has its own set of (usually unspoken) rules. From the time you were born, your family system taught you its rules and groomed you for the role(s) you were supposed to play. Whether you were the peacemaker, the interpreter, the leader, the joker, the supporter, the listener, the agitator or took on any number of different psychological ‘jobs’, you learned your place in the system quite well. And then you practiced being a part of that system for 18 or more years. The ways you think, feel and behave became normalized throughout the course of your childhood and adolescence, just as it does for everyone.
So it’s easy to see why you automatically assume your old roles when you go home; to do otherwise would feel very strange indeed.
Why They Act That Way
To make matters more complex, your unconscious reactions are exacerbated by the behaviors and expectations of your family, especially your parents (or whoever was primarily responsible for your upbringing). When you go home for the holidays, your parents may treat you as if you were still 12 (or 5, as the case may be). This is not necessarily because they perceive you as being childish, but more likely because they’ve not yet relinquished their familiar role as ‘responsible parent’. As much as you’ve struggled to become more autonomous as you’ve grown up, your parents have had to adjust their expectations and assumptions about their relationship with you. Some parents are more successful than others at doing this.
OK, What Do I Do About This?
It takes desire and active work on the part of both you and your parents to achieve a healthy, adult-to-adult relationship. There are several factors that can make this goal more difficult to reach, most notably lack of knowledge and resistance to change. Some folks don’t realize that part of their growth as humans depends on the ability to adjust familial roles as children grow into adults. And some people find these changes to be very disturbing, and they resist them mightily.
In order to create a more equal, less hierarchical relationship between you and your primary caregivers you must learn how to mindfully observe, slow down your automatic responses and create new rules of engagement with the other members of your family.
Paying close, moment-by-moment attention to the ways you interact with your family may be the most challenging step in this process. Whatever else is going on, part of you has to remain detached from the fray so that you can monitor your default behavior as dispassionately as possible. Expect this to be difficult, because the power and influence of the unconscious mind is great. Being home for the holidays is an excellent opportunity for you to examine how your family’s dynamics have shaped your personality. If you’re an actor, you can use the experiences to grow your awareness of human nature and, of course, apply it to your creative work.
Slow It Down
Once you’re able to scrutinize what’s happening in a given familial situation, you can begin to find ways to interrupt your automatic patterns of reacting. One practical way to do this is to slow down your response time. Try to create some space between the ‘input’ of the observed moment and your visceral reaction to it. (Actors may notice that this is the polar opposite of what you’re typically asked to do, say, in a Meisner-based exercise or an improv class.) After you’ve successfully intervened between stimulus and response, you have the option to choose how you want to respond – and now it doesn’t have to be ‘the same old thing’. You can conduct yourself in ways that reflect the person you’ve become (or aspire to be).
Create New Rules aka Boundaries That Work For You
Slowing down your response time and choosing how you want to behave addresses your behavior. But what about the behavior of the other members of your family? Obviously you can’t force any other person to bow to your every wish, but you do have the ability to decide where the line is between actions that are and aren’t OK with you. Once you’re clear on where your boundary is on a particular issue it’s up to you to communicate that clearly to the other members of your family system. Will they always honor your boundaries? That’s highly unlikely. But if you’ve been clear and direct with your needs, then your job is to (calmly and respectfully) remind them that a certain behavior is not acceptable to you. If someone repeatedly crosses your plainly stated boundaries, further actions, such as removing yourself from the situation, may be required.
(Setting, communicating and enforcing personal boundaries is more complicated than this, and something we’ll tackle more in depth another time.)
Take It Easy
Going home for the holidays is supposed to be a time filled with joy and love. For many people, that’s exactly what it is (mostly, anyway). But, for other folks, it can be a truly challenging experience. If being with family is difficult for you, I hope you’re able to put into practice one or two of the ideas I’ve presented. Know that you won’t be able to do it perfectly and that your family will resist. Changing deeply ingrained patterns of interaction does not happen easily or quickly. My hope is that having some insight into the seemingly wacky ways some of us act around our parents and siblings will help ease your struggles and increase your pleasure at this time of year.
Happy holidays, however you celebrate them, and best wishes for a thriving, joy-filled, prosperous and creative 2017.
Bill Harrison is a contributing writer for PerformInk who’s past INNER MISSION articles can be found by clicking here.