Surviving family over the festive season
This year I decided to spend Christmas according to an underappreciated colleague of Freud’s.
That time is here again.
The whole family has come together to celebrate yet another year of avoiding each other's calls and forgetting birthdays by exchanging socks and mini toiletries and consuming enough food and alcohol for the entire population.
Naturally, after not seeing each other for most the year, everyone wants to have a lovely time together.
Everyone wants to have the perfect Christmas.
So, instead of saying how it really is and risking disaster, you all grit your teeth and try extra hard to get on superbly and have a pleasant and problem-free time.
But then, as it inevitably does, something goes wrong.
Someone makes a provocative comment.
The thing that happened last year is brought up.
An argument breaks out.
Yet again, Christmas is ruined.
In trying to make the festive season with our families as good as it can be, we play the game that everything is 100% hunkey dory.
There’s no problem with that.
But then, when that unwanted or uncomfortable thing does happen, as it always does, it tends to cause the whole world to come crashing down in a spectacular display of profanities, door-slamming, and gift receipts.
Rather than play the charade as I do most years, this time I’ve decided to do something different and use the festive season as an opportunity to put to the test a few ideas from a man named Alfred Adler.
Adler was an Austrian psychotherapist whose ideas, as he lived around the same time as Jung and Freud, have long been overlooked.
Adler believed that all our problems are social problems. According to him, everything from our feelings of inferiority and isolation to our misguided goals and our persistent dissatisfaction come down to how we relate to our family and one another.
Sounds about right.
In theory, then, Christmas and the festive period are the perfect time to get to know ourselves better and to even find more peace and connection in our relationships.
But alas, this is Christmas and this is family we’re talking about.
So, in practice, things have the potential to turn out a lot messier and more uncomfortable than we would like.
Luckily, such messes and discomforts are Adler’s speciality. In fact, according to his philosophy, embracing them may not only be the key to having healthy relationships, but the key to living a free and fulfilling life.
So, before your mom tells you to put away your phone at the dinner table, let’s begin our journey into the mind of the brilliant man by first exploring a common misconception that can seem too true at this time of year.
You are not determined by your past
It’s only 11am, but gran’s already on the sherry and has come out with her third shockingly racist comment that was so raw it made her spit up some mince pie.
But that’s nothing.
It’s when she starts recounting in impressive detail (and in front of your new girlfriend) the time you peed your pants on the train when you were seven — even though she doesn’t remember how she got to your house this morning—that things start to become a bit too much.
You’re also sleeping in the same bed you did when you were five and your parents are treating you as if you’re still yet to go through puberty. So you’re already not quite feeling like your usual independent and thirty-something self, to say the least.
Coming together with your family at end of the year is like an annual tradition for remembering why you’re still just a little kid who can’t control their bladder and who’s running around the world pretending to be all grown up and responsible.
So even if it is a time of new beginnings and bold resolutions and you whole-heartedly vow to act differently and be yourself with your family this year, the haunting spirit of the past can still be very much present to remind you who you really are.
Despite the familiar childhood environment and what your relatives have to say about you, the past is the past. And according to Adler, how you grew up and what happened in your past have absolutely zero influence on who you are and how you feel and act today.
And so, even when you feel like the past is holding you back and old habits are preventing you from being who you want to be, it’s actually the opposite that’s true: you’re using the conditions of the past to find reasons to justify why you feel helpless and unable to change today.
In other words, who you are is not determined by the events of your childhood or the opinions of your dysfunctional family. Who you are is something you are choosing in each moment.
This can sound pretty heavy to some, especially if you had a difficult upbringing and harbour a lot of pain or blame toward certain relatives. But it is actually one of the most liberating things you can realise.
Another way to explain it would be that it is not because of your genetics, the family you were born into, or the circumstances of your life that you feel and act the way you do. You feel and act the way you do because you believe it serves you in maintaining certain conditions or achieving certain outcomes.
“No matter what has occurred in your life up to this point, it should have no bearing at all on how you live from now on.”
So other than trying to send your gran a clear message that you’re not seven anymore, what are these conditions or outcomes we’re trying to fulfil?
According to Adler, we use what happened in our past to help avoid putting ourselves in a position where we, or someone else, could get hurt.
It’s much easier to let gran be offensive, let mom treat you like a toddler, and to just sit there passively drinking vino in the background, than to speak up about how you really feel, to be yourself, and to step into the uncomfortable and often painful unknown — especially if it risks you being known as the one who ruined Xmas.
To choose relationships is to choose discomfort
As of about ten months ago, you’ve been a vegan.
All the family know — they’ve teased you about it enough — but the turkey is sizzling away in the oven and there’s no sign of a nut roast or veggie alternative in sight.
You don’t care much about the food, but you’d like to be recognised as an individual with their own preferences and values.
Instead, though, to avoid a potential catastrophe, you suck it up and resentfully take extra servings of roast tatties, sprouts, and mucho vino.
It’s easy to ensure family gatherings are pleasant and just good enough. To pass the time by keeping the booze flowing and laughing off comments or oversights that actually mean a lot to you.
But, as Adler says, an inevitable part of any relationship is discomfort. As a by-product of choosing to have relationships, you are also choosing to be hurt or to hurt someone else.
Typically, we try to deny this fact and take the path of least resistance, turning away from discomfort and trying at all costs to avoid problems in our relationships. The problem is, in attempting to do this, we can’t help but distance ourselves from those around us.
It’s natural to not want to get hurt or be hurt by others — especially over the holidays. But as mentioned earlier, Adler believed that all the problems we face in our lives are interpersonal, or social, problems.
And so, the only way to live a problem-free life is to shut yourself in a box or live in a desert for the rest of your days.
“To get rid of one’s problems, all one can do is live in the universe all alone”.
In trying to avoid the anxiety or disappointment that can come from having an awkward conversation about nut loaves or a painful exchange about unwanted underpants, Adler would say you are failing to recognise that it is impossible to have any relationship without some anxiety and disappointment.
More than that, anxiety, disappointment, discomfort, and pain are the price you pay for close, intimate, and meaningful relationships.
In this way, doing something like standing up for yourself and causing a drunken row might be uncomfortable, but it might be the best thing that’s ever happened to you and your family.
Naturally, nobody wants to take this responsibility. It’s much easier to put on a happy face and pretend you don’t mind sitting next to a dead bird than to rock the boat, share some harsh truths, and potentially hurt those you love most.
But Adler says the reason we would never dream of causing such a fuss is not simply that we want to be good boys and girls and try to keep the peace for the good of the fam.
We avoid discomfort in our relationships because we fear that someone will not like us, or, in other words, because we believe it is possible to be liked by everyone.
Whether or not someone likes you is not your task
The day is winding down, the Baileys and cheese board are nearing empty, and someone proposes the fine idea of playing the family’s favourite board game.
At this point in the day, you could take it or leave it. But the others are already passionately organising themselves into teams and lambasting each other over their terrible names, so you say f*ck it, bring it on.
A few hours later, mom is sulking in the corner and hugging the bottle of Bordeaux Red you bought her whilst blaming you for playing unfairly and ruining her evening and the entire year.
Family festive time is the ultimate showcase of competition within relationships. We compete to buy each other the best gifts. We compete to show each other who’s the most mature. We compete to be the winners of Trivial Pursuits or Kaplunk or whatever your generic board game of choice.
As with any game or activity, when we bring a competitive attitude to our relationships, there have to be winners and there have to be losers. But of course, there’s no points or paper money at stake here, so what exactly are we competing for?
Adler believed that in life we compete against each other to try and satisfy expectations and fulfil the “desire to be recognised.”
We live trying to meet what our parents expect from us. We live trying to ensure our colleagues and friends like us. We live trying not to offend anyone or do anything that would cause them to dislike us.
When you orientate your life around what other people think of you and the desire for recognition, your happiness and peace of mind are not up to you. And so although this is far from a free life, it can be a somewhat comfortable life.
Displeasing others and being disliked is distressful. But the fact is, it is impossible to be liked by everyone, and as such, Adler believed that much—if not all—our dissatisfaction in life comes from trying to fulfil the desire for recognition.
As a result, the fundamental message of Adler’s philosophy can be boiled down to this one point:
“The price of freedom is being disliked by other people.”
We want to be recognised and seen by others—not least our families. So we do all we can to please and we consider managing the opinions of others as part of our job.
But, in Adler’s language, whether or not someone likes you is not your task. Moreover, in trying to control something that is ultimately not up to you, you not only lose your freedom, you rob others of theirs too.
It is not your task to make sure mom, Gran, or whoever like you all the time. It is not your job to always please others. What people choose to think and feel about you is their task. It is not your task to ensure Christmas is perfect. It is not your job to make sure all your relationships are completely problem-free. Christmas will never be perfect. Relationships will never be problem-free.
And that couldn’t be more perfect.
Of course, next time you gather around the table, you shouldn’t start strutting your stuff and telling your relatives exactly what you think of them and their last-minute pound-shop presents.
You have your own tasks, which start with facing the fear of being disliked.
For ultimately, as Adler would say, having the courage to be free and happy in your relationships and life is inseparable from having the courage to be disliked.
So, this year, instead of focusing on making your festivities go satisfactorily and ensuring everything is perfectly pleasant, know that rubbing a few people up the wrong way and causing a scene may not only inevitable, it may be just what you need to revive the beloved family tradition.
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