Excess Baggage

‘Tis the season for family drama. A look at how tense situations arise, and how to avoid them at your next holiday gathering

Illustration by Rachel Koops

1213BOBWellness

The holidays are here, and you’re packing your suitcase, tucking in your favorite sweater and all the little pieces of home that comfort and keep you. As you joyfully envision your family gathered in loving celebration, you focus on images of holidays past: Mom’s pies, your brother’s jokes, your first bike. But inevitably, warm fuzzies are replaced by memories that sting: how Mom always makes your brother’s favorite pie, how he wrecked your shiny new bike out of pure spite and how he complains that no one ever takes his side.

Now you’re stuffing your suitcase with remembered slights and hurtful words, all the little pieces of home that nag and distress you. And you’re sure every memory is true, an unvarnished view of family life as you see it.

The fact is, believing your memories are unfailingly accurate sets the stage for high drama, because every family member—including your brother—believes the same of his own memories, making everyone poised to re-enact familiar scripts of conflict and disappointment at the slightest provocation. That 38 percent of Americans say they feel more stress during the holidays could be attributed to flawed memories and the expectations we attach to them.

“Our shared history is the single biggest source of joy and misunderstanding,” says Wally Goddard, family life professor at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service in Little Rock. “We all have memories, but what we don’t realize is that we don’t always remember things accurately.”

Every time we recall a memory, he says we tweak it slightly. Perhaps your brother didn’t mean to ruin your bike, but your awareness of his jealousy colors your perception. Rather than providing clarity, our subconscious revisions create cracks and ripples that make memories unreliable, a phenomenon proven in studies by neuroscientist Daniela Schiller, who says the adaptable neural pathways of memories are reassembled in different ways every time they’re recalled. Do we all revise our memories?

“If you’re human,” Goddard says. We believe our reshaped memories, which can create friction at family gatherings by making us hypervigilant for behavior that fits our personal narrative. “It’s not surprising that there’s a significant amount of conflict,” he says.

Stress and drama aren’t inevitable. We can master our revised memories—what psychologists call “cognitive distortions”—and avoid old patterns of behavior by acknowledging and respecting our loved ones’ perspectives. Letting go of lingering frustrations requires humility, compassion and positivity, qualities Goddard outlines in his workbook “Getting Our Hearts Right” (available for free at arfamilies.org) that he created for the Cooperative Extension.

 

Humility

It’s hard to be humble when you’re sure your memories are perfect in every way, but start by letting go of the need to be right and the conviction that your memories are unimpeachable. Open your mind to the possibility that your perception is limited.

“We need to understand everyone comes to the table with their own stories and their own needs,” Goddard says. “Come ready to listen to others. Instead of chafing, appreciate their point of view.” When your brother complains of feeling criticized, don’t disagree or try to convince him otherwise. Listen to him and say something like, “I don’t know how you deal with that. It must be very hard for you.”

 

Compassion

Loving your family doesn’t automatically mean you feel compassion for them. Quite the opposite.

“We develop a set of perceptions, then we create labels,” Goddard says. “We may start seeing someone as immature, irresponsible or self-centered. Then we see all their behavior through that lens.”

Compassion means refocusing the lens for a more positive, or at least neutral, point of view that allows you to react with kindness. Tell your brother, “It must be painful to feel like you were always criticized.” By doing that, you set aside the issue and address the feeling. “Showing compassion can turn the tide,” says Goddard.

 

Positivity

While focusing on positives instead of negatives may sound simplistic, this attitude adjustment completes the process of getting our hearts right. Instead of re-enacting scripts that focus on irritations and minimize good memories, choose to emphasize something that’s appealing or makes you smile.

Remember the day you taught your brother to ride a bike or the time Mom showed both of you how to roll out a pie crust. By forming new habits and writing new scripts, you’ll decrease the stress your memories may cause. Says Goddard: “I have a personal motto: People do what they do because it makes sense to them. If we tune in to that, we will understand them better.”

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