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Surviving the joys and pains of family during the holidays

Murray Bowen (family systems theorist and family therapist) famously coined the term “differentiation”. Being differentiated means being clear on your own values and principles and being able to tell the difference between a “fact” and a “feeling”. Sounds good, right? Well, Bowen also referred to families as “undifferentiated ego masses”. (always makes me chuckle) In other words, a group of people who make each other anxious; that you love, but who also drive you crazy; who you can’t imagine living without, but also desperately want to escape from. Sound familiar? Bowen’s theory of change was to become differentiated in the context of your family of origin. He believed that if you could work on being a calm and clear headed with these people, then you could do it with anyone!

The holidays are generally a time when people get together with family. As a therapist, a common topic in session these days is preparing to visit with, and/or be with family members over the holidays. Because of this increased togetherness, the holidays can be stressful, but also can be an opportunity to practice noticing emotional responses to family members, and trying out new ways of relating to family in the face of these emotional reactions vs. getting pulled into the same old roles and habits.

If you are going to give this a try, it pays to think through what your “hot button” issues are with family, and to think about what you want to say and do when these issues or topics come up. I was recently contacted by Time Out magazine in Chicago for an article on this very thing. Check out the article here:

If you are a young adult and still in the process of finding a job, finding a mate, or deciding whether or not to have children – these can be vulnerable areas that make you bristle when people ask you about them or want you to explain “your plan” or what you are “doing about” these things. The article focuses on how to manage these topics as gracefully as possible. Of course, there are myriad other buttons that can be pushed in family interactions, but the principles of managing these moments have many similarities:

1) Slow yourself down. Don’t respond right away. Pause. Breathe. You can say, “let me think about this” if you feel like you need to fill an awkward silence.

2) Share something in the present moment that is authentic. Examples might be, “I am feeling a little uncomfortable right now” or “Wow, this type of conversation doesn’t usually go very well between us, does it?” or “I’m not sure what to say right now”.

3) Engage the other person in making changes in how you relate together. Examples of what to say might be,”Do you have any thoughts about how we could talk in a better way?” or “What are these conversations usually like for you?” or “Can you help me understand where you are coming from right now?”

4). Repeat.

Bowen said that you will know when you are making real changes in your family relationships when “people are throwing stones at you”. I think he meant that changing our relationships with people we have known all of our lives takes time and is hard work, and it can feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar for everyone involved. This is why the pull to being in our old roles with family is so easy to fall back into – everyone knows how it works and it feels familiar (even if it feels bad). However, Bowen also said that if you can stay the course with new behaviors and new ways of relating, those around us will eventually put down their stones and accept the changes as the new status quo. So, keep expectations of yourself and others to a minimum, and then give these steps a try and see if you notice any shifts in you or in the family dynamic.

Good luck with your differentiation practice!

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