By Caroline Smith, MA, LPC, CSAT-S, CMAT, CIP, EMDR and Bill Rap, MRE, PSAP
Today’s society defines Christmas as beautifully wrapped gifts, exquisitely prepared foods, and perfectly behaved loved ones. While these are all part of the ideal holiday, it’s important to remember why we celebrate and to build positive memories to last a lifetime.
Like a moth to a flame, cherished family time often ignites unhealed wounds and intensifies unresolved grievances. Family love has been described as messy, clinging, and full of annoying repetitive patterns—like bad wallpaper. If our Christmas hopes and dreams are built on needs for perfection, we are at risk of being robbed by the greedy, joy-stealing Grinch. Rather than enjoying a Christmas bursting with meaningful connection and restorative family love, we can find ourselves overvaluing the external “gift wrapping” but undervaluing (or perhaps even forgetting) the present—what matters most.
Christmas is not as much about opening our presents as opening our hearts. This true intimacy requires honesty, safety, and trust. I often ask my clients if they are brave enough to be real with their loved ones. They question if they would be safe in doing so. Finding the courage to share our true selves reduces the internal conflict associated with presenting a false self.
Author Carol Nelson wrote, “Christmas is a time when you get homesick even when you’re home. Knowing that you are fully accepted by your family (flaws and all and that you don’t need to lose a few pounds, find a better job, get married, have that grandbaby, etc,) is powerful medicine for the heart. Belonging reduces feelings of loneliness and actual levels of Cortisol. As life unfolds, things may change us, but we will start and end with our family.”
Insecure attachments within the family system is a primary reason clients seek therapy. Intimacy disorders often result in the creation of a false self. Fearing judgment and criticism, or being around highly controlling people, makes us want to run cover. Living under the influence of other people’s expectations for us is painful. In reality, unrealistic expectations of self and others will create resentments.
Increased family time spent together combined with higher levels of stress, lower levels of sleep and self-care, can highjack all of our best intentions. Imagine a family of porcupines struggling to stay warm on a cold winter’s night. They seek the warmth of closeness but each time they move toward each other their quills wound each other. Make this a quill-free Christmas and risk being real.
Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, describes happiness as having three parts—pleasure, engagement and meaning. Pleasure is the “feel good” part of happiness. Engagement refers to living a “good life” including work, family, friends, and personal interests. Meaning refers to using our God-given strengths and innate gifts as we contribute to a larger purpose.
Family members often rejoin each other anticipating the wonder, comfort, and warmth of hearth and home, each one hoping to share the restorative glow of peace on earth and joy to all family members. They come together maxed out and stressed out—yet hungry for heartfelt connections, time-honored traditions, and radical acceptance. The initial stage of “home for the holidays” most likely flows well. It’s easy and enjoyable when communication is surface level like news, weather and sports or school, work and hobbies. This is the “everything is just great” phase. But given enough time and exposure, phase one ends and phase two begins.
Phase two may happen with subtlety or drama, but either way fantasies are contaminated and things get real. High hopes morph into defensiveness, discouragement, or outright hostility. Preparing yourself for the possibility of this phase is one of the most important and loving gifts you can bestow on your family. Hope is not a plan and effective intervention will require serious preparation and courageous willingness to risk doing things differently. As the old saying goes, “If you change nothing, nothing changes.”
Take that leap. Have real conversation this Christmas. Store-bought gifts can’t hold a candle when compared to the meaningful gifts of emotional integrity, intimate sharing, and radical acceptance.
The best gifts you will receive are not found in shops or under Christmas trees. They’re found in the hearts of your loved ones.
“May you have the gladness of Christmas which is Hope,
The Spirit of Christmas which is Peace,
And the Heart of Christmas which is Love.”
~Ada V. Hendricks
Caroline Smith is Director of Pine Grove’s Intensive Workshops and Bill Rap is Co-facilitator of Pine Grove’s Christian-focused Intensive Workshops.