Family, Christmas And The Importance Of Stage Management

The media is rife at the moment with articles on the difficulty of going home to visit a dysfunctional (whatever that means to you) family over Christmas.  

For more help with managing estrangement over the holiday period, sign up to Karl’s Workshop “Surviving an Estranged Christmas” on December 12th at 8pm GMT.

One concept which is particularly important over Christmas when the pressure to return home is strong is Stage Management, i.e. controlling the environment, the key players and the overall narrative of the visit home…as much as possible. There may be complete resistance to you doing this and it would be wise to be subtle in applying these suggestions below.

1. Picking a neutral venue

If the family home has traditionally been where Christmas is spent, it will be difficult to change this. This location may also act as a source of security or power for the family members you are struggling with and they are not likely to give this up quickly.

The only way to change the venue is to offer an attractive alternative, such as a hotel where the dinner is cooked and served. Inviting family to your own home might be another option, but many would prefer to keep family outside of their safe zone.

You may decide to not compromise on this, i.e. it’s a hotel/restaurant or no visit, but they might react to negatively to this so act cautiously.

2. Managing the venue

If you have no choice to visit, you can try to manage the dynamics to reduce stress, manipulation, etc.

2.1 Defensiveness is counter-intuitive

It is not uncommon for family members to silo themselves into different rooms or corners to establish some control over the space and minimize engagement. It is also not uncommon to see members hunched over and hiding behind newspapers, TV’s, smartphone…anything to avoid eye contact (a simple look can easily trigger a vulnerable state and spark a reaction). These can also be passive techniques to make others feel comfortable.

Adopting defensive postures/positioning, while reflecting both how you feel and the role you may have adopted in the family, may just fuel the toxic behaviors and further propagate your own co-dependence by playing out the old dynamic.

Alternatively, assertive postures such as upright shoulders, clear eye contact (particularly avoid looking down a lot) and direct language can help to demonstrate that you cannot be easily controlled. This also includes picking where you sit in the dinning room table, not eating something if you don’t want to and ending a conversation and leaving the table when you are not comfortable with an exchange.

This may trigger deeps fears of conflict as you dread the familial response but these are necessary steps towards developing more autonomy.

2.2 Conversational Ambushes

The term Valence Fluidity refers to how good conversations can rapidly turn bad…and this is a common reality when returning home.

A conversation can go from an apparently genuine inquiry as to how work is going to a waterfall of harsh criticism and unrequested opinions.

Conversational ambushes are like sucker punches, they catch you off guard and break your attempts to remain calm and maintain boundaries.

The best advice I can give is remember who you are talking to. Unless someone has had a radical overnight transformation (which I have never seen once in my time as a therapist), this type of communication rarely changes and can be expected.

Most importantly, sharing your personal life to another should be seen as a privilege to be respected…and should not be devalued, especially by you. If they have not regained your trust and consistently demonstrated a lack respect, give them as much information as they deserve and nothing more than that.

3. Training your buffer

Having someone by your side who you trust is a priceless gift to any person struggling with family.

To have someone SEE who you are, SEE what you are going through and SEE what you need is the mostly critical component of the recovery process.

This person acts as buffer through life, to cushion the pain of emotional flashbacks and the subsequent deep level of uncertainty.

The buffer can also reinforce the process of stage management, by fully supporting the different approaches a person decides to implement. 

A buffer sometimes acts as social law enforcement, where fear of judgement from this third party may prompt family members to behavior a little more maturely…maybe.

The most important thing is to let the buffer know exactly what you need from them and do not presume that they understand the stress of going home. This includes:

  • Tell them which topics/information is NOT to shared at home.
  • Tell them to NOT let their own frustration/anger with the situation pull them into the drama.
  • Tell them it’s OK to stand up for you if someone speaks ill of you when you leave the room.
  • And tell them what you need after the visit (maybe its affection, maybe it’s space…but let them know it’s not personal if this is the case, just the reality of carrying hurt and needing time to process).

I really hope this was helpful and I empathize with how difficult the coming weeks are going to be (I’ve been there and felt the pre-visit anxiety and post-visit depression).

With one in five families affected by estrangement in the UK, this indicates there are many in a similar situation to yours so don’t feel you are completely alone!

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