I know, going in, that not one of my gifts will measure up. That I will count myself lucky if she doesn’t dress me down before we even sit down to dinner. I can only hope that she keeps her mitts off my kids because I’ve already decided I’m leaving if she does. And, if that happens, I will be blamed for ruining the holiday for everyone. After all, I am supposedly the ‘difficult one.’
Source: Photograph by Comfreak. Copyright free. Pixabay
Next to Mother’s Day—which brings with it a very special kind of pain—the holiday season fills many adults with dread, especially if their relationship to their mother has been fraught, emotionally painful, or downright damaging. It’s the blitz of enforced holiday cheer and all those photographs of smiling and happy families that makes the daughter feel, once again, that she’s the only girl on the planet whose mother doesn’t love her. It reawakens her sense of shame at being singled out in this way, even if she is an adult and, in fact, has a family of her own.
The most benign of questions— “What are you doing for the holidays?”—reopens old wounds in ways that are often confounding when everyone seems so upbeat and happy. What to say when your co-worker is thrilled to be flying cross-country to Pittsburgh despite the inevitable delays and airport hassles to see Mom and Dad and you are dreading going to a single dinner that’s a thirty-minute drive? How do you deal with buying a gift when you know that whatever you offer up will be rejected or mocked, and probably compared to the supposedly perfect present your sibling has brought?
I’m still not sure if I’m going to go since I haven’t really gotten over last Christmas when, after she’d lavished presents on my brother and sister—all beautifully wrapped—she handed me a white envelope, saying that I was too hard to shop for. In it was a twenty-dollar bill. I was literally speechless because it felt like a slap. It actually was a slap. Am I really required to do this again in the name of family?
If you’re still trying to manage the relationship—which many daughters do for many reasons—the predictable scripts that come up with direct contact are incredibly dispiriting: the subtle and not-so-subtle putdowns of you and everything about your life; the fawning over your sister, Mom’s favorite; the way you feel marginalized and small, once again.
Then, too, there’s the quandary of what to say about the holidays if you’ve gone no-contact with your mother: Do you spill the beans and armor yourself for critical looks or do you waffle your answers, feeling shame as you do? Many daughters report that even with families of their own, they feel a tremendous sense of loss at this time of year and, sometimes, tons of anger at the unfairness of it all. Others, especially if they find themselves alone, fall prey to the old habit of self-blame and wonder whether it is, in fact, all their fault.
“I’d like to put all of December up through January 2 on speed dial”
That was the rueful sentiment shared by one of my readers, and I know she’s not alone. How to handle the built-in stress of the season, no matter where you find yourself—still trying to salvage the relationship, trying to figure out how to manage it, or dealing with no contact? The best approach is to identify the triggers first and foremost and come up with a plan to cope ahead of time so that you don’t reduce yourself to a quivering blob of reactivity. Following is a list of triggers most unloved daughters will find themselves dealing with during the holiday season.
That feeling that you’re the only one….
This is precisely what the excitement in your neighbor’s voice communicates when she describes the upcoming holidays —the isolation you felt growing up, thinking you were the only unloved child on the planet, the only one without a mother who wanted nothing more than to see her daughter happy. As I’ve written before, and underscore in my new book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, this feeling of being singled out is almost as damaging as the lack of maternal love itself.
Coping strategies: Recognizing that this is a default position and that you are making other people’s words into personal statements about you and seeing that all those holiday commercials—happy and supportive families, cared-for children—are pushing old buttons from childhood. Disarm the triggers by recognizing their provenance and focus instead on the positives in your adult life. Remind yourself that it’s estimated that some 40% or more of all children don’t get their emotional needs met in childhood; you’re actually on a crowded train, in truth. One study suggests that rather than counting your blessings, you actually subtract them which enables you to appreciate the presence of the good people and circumstances in your life and the pleasures and comfort they bring to it.
Feelings of loss and cascades of emotion
That sense of being excluded from the loving circle of family may be very intense for many daughters, even after the death of their mothers (and fathers); it’s counterintuitive but even daughters who have initiated no contact may still feel the pain of being shut out during the holidays. That’s the nature of triggers, of course—to reawaken and bring unprocessed feelings back up to the surface. Managing these emotions may be difficult for many daughters especially if they are a mix of feelings—sadness with anger, for example, or hopelessness with indignation.
Coping strategies: Most unloved children have difficulty managing emotions, either walling themselves off from feeling or being unable to self-regulate when stressed and emotionally flooding as a result. Recognizing your own deficits is a starting point and working on becoming more effective at dealing with strong feelings ahead of the holiday stress can be a game-changer. Working on labeling what you’re feeling—distinguishing one emotion from another—will help you deal. Recognizing your reactivity and its source—which is really in the past and not in the present—may help you shift perspective in a meaningful way. Do plan to spend time with people you genuinely care about and in whose company you feel safe and valued too, if being alone will make you feel lonely.
If you’re seeing your family of origin, be proactive
I still remember my hopefulness—this is many, many years ago—that somehow, things would be different and magically change and, not surprisingly, those feelings would inevitably intensify as the holidays approached. If you’re still thinking that there’s a magic formula that will turn things around—perhaps you’ll finally say the right thing and your mother will recognize you as being the loving person you are, or the thoughtfulness of your gift will be the epiphany she needs—you must realize that you are setting yourself up for disappointment and pain. In truth, realism will be a better companion for you during the holidays than wishful thinking and additionally, there are other steps you should take before the holidays start.
1. Examine your expectations
If you are banking on a miracle or magic, you are essentially setting yourself up for disappointment. Spend some time thinking about your expectations about the time you’ll be spending with your family and set your own goals. If you are maintaining this relationship for the sake of your children, keep that in mind and remember that the degree to which you engage is up to you. No one can push your buttons if you’ve already decided you won’t allow them to.
2. Set boundaries and stick to them
You are no longer a child and you have every right to decide ahead of time what you will and won’t tolerate in terms of other people’s behavior. This doesn’t mean that you should be rude, hostile, or angry—even when you’re on the receiving end of those behaviors—but that you should set boundaries and act on them. You can walk out of a room, if necessary, if you’re being attacked, tell someone that he or she is behaving inappropriately, and leave the gathering if need be. Holidays and family ties do not give anyone, not even your mother, carte blanche to disparage you or try to humiliate you. Please keep that in mind. At the same time, don’t permit yourself to be drawn in or baited either; if necessary, simply withdraw and state your reasons calmly and with civility.
3. Remember that you only own your behavior—not that of other people
Most dysfunctional families have predictable scripts—patterns of interaction with roles assigned to various people—and you should be clear about what they are and prepare yourself for their appearance. If the conversation usually turns critical and needling and you’ve always been assigned the scapegoat role, the chances are good that that’s exactly what will play out. Recognizing these patterns and understanding that they have nothing to do with who you are—regardless of what you might have believed in childhood or later—permits you to stay out of the fray and will allow you to let your best self show up. Remember too that the toxic kind of game-playing some families engage in requires you to be an active participant; they are looking for you to react in predictable ways because that’s how the game is played. If you don’t get into the sandbox with them, even the most dedicated of narcissists will give up. It’s no fun sitting in a sandbox by yourself.
Swapping out the triggers for some joy (Really…)
I don’t mean for you to grab for those rose-colored glasses and start telling everyone that Christmas is your favorite time of year and that you really love hearing canned carols and echoes of a White Christmas in every shop and elsewhere because they bring you so much happiness. But one way of escaping from the childhood room in your head is to realize how far you’ve come since you used to sleep there every night. Perhaps your life isn’t perfect—whose is, after all? —but, still, there is much to celebrate. Here are some ideas for you to help get through the season in one piece.
Use visualization in times of stress
Studies show the visualizing a time or a place when you felt relaxed can affect your mood and help manage your emotions; the same holds true for visualizing a person with whom you feel safe. Practicing visualization—using a photograph as a prompt, for example—will strengthen your skill at self-soothing when you’re beginning to feel tense or overwhelmed. It’s not just that you’re managing stress but that you’re leaving yourself open to positive emotions by keeping angst in check.
Do something special for yourself
Yes, treat yourself to something you wouldn’t in the ordinary course of things. Learning to mother and care for yourself is part of recovery, and the holidays are actually a good time to set your sights on the future ahead. Do something you haven’t before—like taking a barre class, learning to knit or crochet, or trying a new recipe—to remind yourself that you’re flexible and capable of growth.
Set recovery goals and appreciate your progress
One of the best ways to get unstuck is to get yourself moving in a new direction and setting achievable goals for yourself is one way to rev up your mental and emotional engines. Studies show that actually writing your goals down the old-fashioned way—yes, we are talking about a pen and paper—not only motivates you more than simply thinking about them but will also clarify your intentions. These should be personal goals related to recovering from childhood such as becoming more articulate about your own needs, tamping down the old reflexes of reactivity, or putting a stop to trying to win people over by pleasing them. Leave the weight loss and healthier eating stuff for the New Year because now is the time to become a better caretaker of your own inner garden.
And enjoy your own company and savor the moments of joy. Once you start paying attention, you might be surprised by how many there are.
Copyright ©2017 Peg Streep
The ideas and research for this post are drawn from my new book, Daughter Detox.