Last Christmas, I picked a fight with my husband. After unwrapping my gift, I was disappointed that he had given me peppermint bark candy when I had asked for peppermint creams.
“How can you get them confused? I sent you a photo!” I shouted. It was silly, I know.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I wasn’t really upset about the candy. My husband’s mistake reminded me of depressing holidays I had experienced as a kid — like the year my friends all received Cabbage Patch Kids and Santa gave me a sheet of stickers with my name spelled “Julie” instead of “Juli.”
Even though we’re adults, many of us can sulk like teenagers or behave like irritable adolescents, especially when surrounded by family during the holidays. While we may judge ourselves for acting poorly, this behavior isn’t a sign of immaturity; it’s a defense mechanism known as regression.
The term, coined by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, describes the human tendency to return to an earlier stage of psychological development, which helps explain why adults may sometimes feel (and act) like kids.
Freud saw regression as an unconscious defense that helped protect the ego from stress and anxiety. This “ego armor” works by temporarily shielding us from painful emotions, like sadness, anger, and insecurity. Like all defense mechanisms, regression serves a purpose, helping us express our emotional distress.
The act of returning to our childhood homes can also trigger memories. In fact, neuroscience research shows our physical surroundings can elicit emotions, causing us to revert to old behaviors.
“Much like a song can bring back a memory, our family environments, with the familiarity of sights, sounds, and even smells can light up the brain with memories and emotions,” Hilary Jacobs Hendel, a psychotherapist who specializes in emotions and trauma, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Hendel says it’s common to settle back into “old” family roles, especially when returning home. For example, if you’re known as the “peacemaker,” you may find yourself working hard to ensure everyone gets along, feeling extra sensitive to any family conflict.
But despite longstanding family histories and dynamics, during the holidays we may fantasize that old hurts and complicated relationships can be mended.
Hendel recalls returning home for the holidays, hoping to smooth things over with her father. But no matter how hard she tried to get along, longstanding resentments from feeling mistreated re-surfaced, making it very hard to feel good in his presence.
“Understanding how trauma impacts the brain helped me understand that I was not weak,” she says. “Strong neural networks were at play.”
Hendel points out that family members can get “stuck” in their dance, set in the ways they coexist, because established roles are difficult to change, especially when it’s challenging to acknowledge and discuss emotions like anger, sadness, and grief.
Still, many of us may wonder why we can’t eradicate old behaviors, like anger outbursts, passive-aggressive comments, and uninvited criticism, even after we’ve left our childhood homes. But “moving out” isn’t the same as “moving on,” and regression usually reveals that an emotional need is not being met.
“It can be painful to accept that our parents and family members may never change,” says Hendel.
Instead of accepting reality, we may see the holidays as an opportunity to receive love, care, and understanding from family members, even if they’re incapable of nurturing us in this way. Because no matter how old we are, the need to be emotionally validated by family never goes away.
But even if our families are quirky and sprinkled with dysfunction, we don’t have to let it spoil the joy of the season.
Reflecting on how relationships may play out can help us see patterns more clearly. For example, one of the best predictors of future behavior is past behavior, which means if you’re hoping that your mom may hold back her criticism or that your dad will finally accept your political views, it’s probably unlikely.
However, this doesn’t mean all hope is lost.
Acceptance of our reality can help us navigate our family relationships more mindfully. If you know that hurtful feelings will arise, ask yourself — How will you cope? What are some ways that your family enjoys spending time together? Perhaps it’s by seeing a movie, taking a walk, or playing a board game. Then, plan to incorporate these types of activities into your celebration.
If conversations become heated, reach for your empathy. Studies show that self-compassion can strengthen our emotional resilience, making us less reactive to negative emotions.
“Self-compassion can teach us that an experience isn’t the end of the story, which can help soften hurtful feelings,” says Hendel. Bottom line is, don’t be too hard on yourself over the holidays. Nearly all of us are experiencing the same regressive feelings.
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