Home for Christmas: Regression and a Mindful Survival Guide for the Holidays
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
If you live on your own with or without your own family, and come to your parental home for the Holidays, this can be both something you blissfully expect but also somehow dread a little. After all, there are many reasons why Christmas can be a stressful time.
Today our focus will be on the phenomenon of holiday regression, which is yet another reason why Christmas may feel threatening to you.
Perhaps you have noticed it.
You may be a fully functioning adult managing life independently on your own away from home, yet the very moment you walk the doorstep of your parental home, it is as if you travel back in time.
Suddenly, you are not your Adult Self anymore, but regress back to your Teenage Self. It is as if the well-established family dynamics take full control over you again, and you act and are treated like a younger version of yourself.
This is the phenomenon of regression. Regression is a defense mechanism originally introduced by Freud.
It posits that when under stressful and tense situations, we regress to older patterns of behaviour. Being home for the holidays can be indeed stressful, and an inevitable reminder of nostalgia- all that was but is no more. So you may even want to reenact it!
Why Does Regression Happen?
It is completely natural.
When families get back together, they revert to the same roles and routines established years ago- even if those are no longer relevant or useful anymore.
Most adult kids have spent at least 20 years in the family environment before they flew off the nest, and that’s a pretty long time. In this time, every member of the family took on specific roles and patterns of behaviour.
Family systems theory claims that the behavioural patterns established between members of a family become quite rigid and interlocked, simply because this works.
Whatever the roles were, even if not completely functional, they kept the family rolling for a great amount of time. The roles we adhere to keep the family unit intact, so returning back home brings it all back.
We often underestimate the emotional power of places. Human beings learn a great deal based on location – we create memories this way. If you sleep in your childhood room, it is no wonder that memories from that time will rise up to the surface once again, as well as Parts of yourself that belong to that time, rather than the Present. Even the specific and unique smell of your parental home has greater power than you may conceptualize: it awakens memories in a subtle way, unconsciously.
So indeed, when you’re back home you regress. You automatically enter a previous developmental and emotional phase of your Self.
And while this is completely normal from a psychological point of view, while you should expect to regress, it can be quite challenging too.
Simply because your current reality of your Adult Self comes into conflict with that younger version of yourself.
Suddenly, you find yourself ready to explode at some innocuous comment your adult sibling made. Or you scoff and roll your eyes at your father, when he treats you like a child. You get defensive when they ask you questions about your personal life, and may even blurt out a comment such as “Leave me alone! This is none of your business!”- just to shortly after silently wonder, where did this aggressive reaction really come from?
You may find a family Christmas dinner becomes just a bit too much for you, and have the urge to escape and go hide at your childhood hiding place until you feel composed and calm to return to the table again.
You may find your mother starts calling you on the phone if it is late at night and you’re out with your friends, and wonder how is this even possible? You have a whole life built confidently elsewhere, and suddenly she worries that it is too late and wonders if you are safe walking home by yourself?!
Overall, you may tend to be more sensitive, more volatile, more irritable, more critical, more emotionally reactive- just like your adolescent rebellious Self once was. You may have a harder time keeping up with your personal boundaries too, because family members may react strongly to any sign of change and growth- as this comes in contrast with the old patterns everyone is used to.
As a result, conflicts may occur, painful emotional patterns may come back to life, criticism may escalate into arguments, and this takes you far away from the spirit of the most wonderful time of the year.
At the same time, you may be too lazy helping out at the dinner table, or find yourself asking your mother for some pampering. It is cosy to slip back into old patterns. Even if your childhood was not fuzzy the whole time, it is probably a period of less responsibility and more carelessness than your adult life is. So you won’t easily say no to some maternal nurturing.
Your parental home has been your comfort zone for way too long- everything is so familiar and predictable.
It’s not a lost cause. Let’s see what can be done to make your coming home for Christmas a smoother, more balanced and joyful experience.
Expect to Regress- But What’s to Be Done?
Here's your Mindful Survival Guide for the Holidays!
Despite all that is challenging or the echoes of the Past that are so vivid whilst you’re home for the Holidays, this is actually an excellent opportunity to realize and enhance your personal growth.
As stated in this wonderful article, being home for the holidays is the Ultimate Mindfulness Training Ground.
It is your chance to be fully present, mindful and conscious of all that is going on within you and around you, and observe yourself when you’re slipping into patterns that don’t fully belong to who you are now.
Connect with your body
Embodied cognition refers to the way our emotional and mental lives are lived through our bodies. Notice how being in your childhood home may reflect on your body, especially in moments when you feel tense or aggravated.
When you feel triggered by old patterns between your family members, notice how this affects your breath and body and adopt and adult posture.
Sit up straight, take a few deep breaths and ground yourself on the floor.
Observe how this may influence how you feel- it will already give you a moment to connect with your Adult Self and become centered again, before reacting from an older version of you.
Observe yourself- Progress not Regress!
Observe when you are triggered to act like you used to. When you become frustrated, it’s often because a personal boundary has been crossed, or you believe you shouldn’t be treated this way.
Notice how focused on yourself you are, and remember that it’s not always about you. Don’t take comments too personally, as they reflect the already established patterns of the past.
What bothered me right now?
What thoughts are flowing through my mind?
How do I feel about this?
How am I prone to react?
Can I act in the opposite way than what my emotion asks me to? What could I do differently?
What reflects my adult side more?
Focus on the Other
A helpful practice to help you refrain from reacting aggressively to one of your family members, is if you focus your attention to them instead.
What does this person need right now?
Can I see the world from their perspective?
What is their message they are trying to pass through to me?
How can I help them?
Practice Active Listening
When you are provoked to just react, practice your listening skills instead. Truly listen to what is being said and transferred, offer them your undivided attention. Hold your urge to snap with a response or rehearse what you want to say next. After all, you’re more mature now. You’re not a teenager anymore.
Let Go of your Urge to Control and your Expectations
Easier said than done, but being at home is a great opportunity to practice let things go.
Did you just feel offended by a critical comment? Notice it, and let it go. Don’t get entangled in it. Don’t get further engaged. Let it be. Keep your expectations low, so you don't get disappointed. Accept your family members for who they are, not who you would like them to be. Acceptance brings about kindness and balance.
Take Time for Yourself
When you get aggravated, it is much preferable to take a little time-out to re-center and balance yourself, than interact in an old way that can easily escalate and turn sour.
Simply excuse yourself, leave the Christmas table for a bit, practice mindful breathing in a quiet space, find your center, and return.
Prepare Yourself and Make Amends
If you anticipate intrusive questions and provoking comments by family members, prepare yourself in advance about how you would like to ideally respond, to avoid drama and old patterns.
At the same time, if you worry about a potential unresolved issue with a family member, and the damaging effect it may have, better address it before the holiday.
Don’t wait until the Christmas Dinner table to face your estranged sister with whom you had a conflict. Approach any relative ahead of time and make amends. This guarantees a smoother outcome during the holidays.
Practice Makes Permanent
The more you practice a new behaviour, the more established it gets. That’s why it is so tough to unlearn something- but you rewire your brain ever so slightly whenever you act in a new, improved way.
Patterns will operate the way they always did, until they are challenged. This applies to any relationship change you may want to accomplish. Your family members may be surprised that you did not react in a regressive way and may want to further provoke you to spark a familiar heated interaction. That’s to be expected- any system will resist change because it threatens its existence!
The more you actively try to not go there, the more they will also acknowledge that you are not who you used to be like when you were living under the same roof. As a result, it will become more likely that they will start acting in a different way towards you, too.
If it is a family tendency to speak about others to others, instead of confronting them directly (aka gossip or play the “he said-I said” game), this year commit to refrain from this habit.
If a disagreement arises with a family member, be direct and deal only with them instead. This is a much more effective and adult way of relating, and it may improve your chances for a faster resolution of a conflict.
Hold your Tongue and THINK!
Refrain from giving advice unless it is requested. Unsolicited advice can be a usual source of conflict at family gatherings and conveys disapproval.
Stop yourself when you feel urged to blurt out a critical or offensive comment to a family member, and then THINK:
If yes, say it! That’s a simple way to ensure more balanced and well-intended conversational patterns between family members.
Attitude of Gratitude
Appreciate all that you have; that's the Christmas Spirit!
It may be far from ideal, it may be often messy and complicated, you may get annoyed at your family members, you may feel urged to act like you did in the past. But hey, first of all, appreciate you do have family members to get mad at, at all!
Be grateful for anything that you’re surrounded by. Realize that things may not be ideal, but they are still pretty awesome just as they are.
Be Fully Present
The greatest secret to reach contentment, is to enjoy every moment at its fullest.
Whatever you are doing, be there fully and completely. Even the most trivial or mundane tasks- immerse yourself in them. Fully absorb the moment you are in conversation with someone. That's the greatest gift you can give them.
Every moment you are experiencing, will never ever come back. Cherish it.
Keep it Neutral and Bring Forth New Habits
If your family enjoys drama, make a change this year and opt for neutral topics of conversation or new family activities you could all enjoy together.
By doing something new, you essentially start to establish different neural pathways to your whole family as a system! And you create meaningful memories, something incredibly precious.
Don’t Judge Yourself Too Harshly
If you do revert to patterns of the past, remind yourself that this is completely ok.
Don’t be overly critical of yourself. What mostly matters is that you are mindful of your emotions and reactions. That’s a first step towards acting in a different way.
It is impossible to simply erase or undo old traumas and pain. It may be extremely challenging to break free from regressive patterns and old habits within your family system. Maybe it's always going to be a bit dramatic, no matter how hard you try.
But when you take a moment to reflect on yourself and make sense of your emotions, you can make a conscious choice to respond as an aware adult, rather than as a child.
This way you ground yourself in the Present instead of dwelling in the Past.
Remember the Christmas Carol of Charles Dickens- in my view it is a most wonderful fairytale portraying what we discussed in this article today.
Remember how Scrooge was haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.
These three spirits aimed to show grumpy, stingy and cold-hearted Scrooge that he simply needed to change his negative ways, or else he was bound to keep reliving the Past and be haunted by it.
This is your time to reflect, introspect and grow.
Releash yourself from past patterns and embrace the New You.
Enjoy mindfully being home for the Holidays!