This time of year, between Thanksgiving and the winter holidays can be filled with a wide range of feelings, from joy and gratitude to longing and loneliness. Many articles and blogs that come out around this time often address the challenges of family reunions, citing the many ways coming back together with family for the holidays can create intense and sometimes surprisingly negative emotional reactions. Here I’d like to offer a slightly different take on this theme of wintertime events.
As we grow from infancy onward, we come to our family lives with an innate drive to connect. One way to remember the fundamentals of this attachment journey is with four or five S’s: We need to
1) Be SEEN—meaning our inner life is perceived, made sense of, and responded to in a timely and effective manner. The attunement of others helps us “feel felt” in the world.
2) Be SOOTHED—meaning that our distress is noted and the interactions with others helps us to feel calmer, more at ease. This interactive soothing becomes internal soothing as we develop.
3) Be SAFE—meaning that we are protected from harm and also that those we care about are not the source of terror. This is how we come to have a sense of trust in others.
4) Be SECURE—meaning that we develop an overall internal model of solidity, enabling us to feel that in general, we are worthy of being seen, soothed, and safe and that we can rely on others for this important sense of connection.
In addition, a “fifth S” might be the notion of “SENSE-making”—meaning how we rely on our interactions with others to make sense of the world. This making sense process enables us to feel a coherence between what we experience ourselves and how we are told the world actually is. With a coherent sense-making experience, we have what some researchers term, “epistemic trust.”
Seen, soothed, safe, sense-making, and secure.
Now imagine that family serves as an attachment home base for you. If there is no one you are seeing that you would call family, each of these S’s may be out of the picture and loneliness and longing may arise. In this case, finding a way in the coming months to create your own family life may be something to put on your New Year’s To-Do list, making the cultivation of relationships a priority in your life.
If your family has consistently provided these S’s of security for you, perhaps you are reading this blog and thinking, “no problem—I love family time!” Good for you. Enjoy it, relish it, and find ways to support everyone in the family.
But if your family has not in the past provided these S’s of security for you or others, then this list may be helpful to keep in mind as you enter this holiday season. We have a saying that you can “name it to tame it,” meaning that if you name an emotional state it will help you create equilibrium in your life. If you are at the dinner table and Aunt Mary doesn’t see you as you are discussing some important issues in your life, when the feeling of disconnection arises, say to yourself, with your inner voice, “Ah—how fascinating—agitation from not being SEEN. That’s one of those S’s of security, fully missing here from her reactions to me, no wonder I have this unsettling feeling of disconnection. You may not be able to change Aunt Mary, but you can change how you understand and respond to her non-secure ways of interacting with you.
If you have something distressing going on, turn to a family member or friend who has the capacity to hold your experience in his or her mind. With the Wheel of Awareness practice, the rim represents all that can be the knowns of our mind—what we hear or see, what we feel in our bodies, what we think, remember or experience as emotion, our sense of connections to others—and the HUB represents being aware, the knowing of consciousness. Cultivating your own HUB of your mind may be important to build your own resilience in general, and to use the widened HUB especially during this challenging holiday time.
I like to compare the HUB to the analogy of a container of water. If life’s challenges are like a tablespoon of salt, the HUB of awareness we can cultivate is like a container of water. If our HUB is just the size of an espresso cup, then that tablespoon of salt will make that small volume of water too salty to drink. If on the other hand, you’ve taken the time to enlarge that HUB of your wheel, then the container of awareness will now be like a one-hundred-gallon container of water. Place that same life challenge, that tablespoon of salt, into the now enlarged volume of water and it will be fresh to the tastefully palatable.
If your family reunion is filled with frightening interactions, find the solace of your now widened HUB to differentiate yourself as an adult today from times perhaps in your childhood when terror from some family member was indeed overwhelming. You may be having an “implicit memory” of terror, one filled with bodily sensations or images of fear. Now, with your more distant life from the family, reflect on those past times, compare them to what is happening now in the interaction, and offer a widened HUB of your own awareness to not get lost in that reactivated memory. Take a break and go for a walk, reflecting on what is now versus what was then.
Reflecting on memory, like this and other potential forms of distress now, is a way of making sense of your inner experience and the family events happening in this present time. Don’t forget that now, unlike back then, you can be your own secure attachment figure. You can see what is actually going on inside you with clarity and acceptance, you can soothe your own inner distress, you can keep yourself safe, and you can make sense of what is going on as you name it to tame it. Let yourself feel the security of this way of being with your family arise, even as it may now be organized by your own individual mental life. With your own Holiday HUB widened and awake, you can make these family times moments filled with clarity and strength. Now you can see challenges as opportunities to make reconnections even in the face of initial mismatches. Life is messy, relationships often disconnected and disconcerting. You can take this perspective with an open heart and a wide-open HUB to make these instances a fine time for family reunions. Deep breath—and enjoy!