Why Does Visiting Family Feel So Overwhelming? A Psychologist Explains
Communing with family during the holiday season might be a great source of joy and comfort, but for many of us, it also yields anxiety to varying degrees. Often, we can't even articulate why we feel so overwhelmed—and that's because the situation itself is rife with confusion. Here we are, autonomous and evolved adults, stepping into a family dynamic that hasn't necessarily grown up with us. It's no wonder that we often fall victim to some of the same behavior patterns and old psychological wounds that we encountered as kids, even if only subconsciously. (And that's not even to mention the great aunt who always feels the need to pry into your personal life.)
In order to hone in on some key strategies for negotiating the most stressful family scenarios, we deferred to New York City–based psychologist Heather Silvestri, PhD. Below, she offers up some invaluable advice that might allow you to truly enjoy your time with your relatives—including the perfect response to any persistent inquiries about your love life.
If you're dealing with intrusive questions about your dating life…
Even when we're genuinely happy being single, it's difficult not to get defensive when fielding questions about our relationship status—partially because there's often an undercurrent of unwarranted sympathy, or in the case of older relatives, of an entirely different generation, actual (projected) anxiety about the fact that you're not paired off. (My grandmother, for example, was always super direct about this: "Why don't you want a serious boyfriend right now? Don't you want to get married?" It was difficult for her to understand that I don't hinge my personal fulfillment on that area of my life in the same way that she did at my age, when being married with children at 26 was the norm.)
Silvestri's advice is to recognize that these questions, while seemingly invasive (and definitely exhausting), often come from a place of genuine care. "In many instances, family members essentially want to know if their loved ones are faring well in life, but lacking experience with an emotional lexicon, they substitute concrete questions, which are easier, but may actually miss the point," she says. So, here's your opportunity to flip the script in a way that's more meaningful to you while also acknowledging their good intentions: "Ask, 'Oh, do you mean you want to make sure I’m not lonely and feel connected in my life?'" says Silvestri. "In this way, families at least have a shot at having a more affirmative and emotionally relevant conversation."
If you feel like a kid again (and not in a good way)…
Isn't it remarkable that no matter how "together" we are as an adult—no matter how successful and well-adjusted we are—many of us feel that familiar teenage angst wash over us the moment we walk through the door of our parents' house? This reversion, Silvestri says, is often the culprit behind family arguments at the holiday table, as we slip back into old dysfunctions and behavior patterns.
"No matter how much we as individuals evolve and grow, the gravitational pull of the familiar, especially at the holidays, often draws families back into their history," she says. "Old habits die hard, especially interpersonal ones."
Job number one is simply recognizing when it's happening, so that you're better able to remove yourself from the situation (mentally or physically, if necessary). "I often suggest that clients see themselves as dual holograms, shifting between various developmental images of themselves depending on the context," says Silvestri. "This fluidity makes room for historical family dynamics to crop up but also empowers people to shift into more current and progressed versions of themselves."
That said, you may also benefit from some pre-planned alone time in order to recalibrate. "During the holiday season, when old family dynamics loom larger than usual, I recommend setting at least one (and sometimes multiple) alerts in your phone to prompt a quiet moment to assess your internal emotional landscape," says Silvestri. "This allows the psychological space and time to catch any problematic dynamics that have recurred and to consciously shift into the more adult and progressed versions of themselves."
If you feel disappointed that your family doesn't "get" you…
Again, as adults with our own responsibilities and lives, it can be immensely frustrating when our family members insist on treating us as if we're the same person we were at 14. But rather than subjecting yourself to ongoing disappointment, Silvestri recommends being proactive by adjusting your expectations—not necessarily that your siblings are horrible people, for example, but that they, like you, are merely human.
"We yearn for our family members to be the best versions of themselves, and when inevitably their humanity creeps in, we feel disappointed and become sad or angry," she says. "I've observed in my practice a marked tendency to confuse expectations with wishes. When reviewing with clients their expectations for the holidays, most people provide a pretty reasonable version of what they’re anticipating. However, the emotionally driven wish for the better angles of our family to prevail often sneaks in, and we then get caught off guard when the reality does not comport with that idealizing wish."
So what can you do? Focus on the aspects that you can control—namely, your response in these kinds of situations. It might be difficult in practice, but once you get the hang of simply recognizing when different dynamics are in play—and that most often, it actually has very, very little to do with you—it can be incredibly freeing.
"Regardless of the degree to which the holidays generate family-related stress, we have choices at every juncture," says Silvestri. "I encourage clients to use as a holiday heuristic technique—the proverbial 'take it for what it has to offer, try to leave it for what it doesn’t.'" In other words, try to embrace the joy of the experience, and know that even as you encounter inevitable stresses, you'll be leaving them at the door when you head back to your real life.