Nancy Colier
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Anxious About Returning to Family Gatherings? Be Prepared.

Seeing family again, in person, can be triggering. How to emotionally prepare.


Over the coming months, many of us will be attending in-person family gatherings, maybe for the first time in close to two years.

While being with family in the flesh can feel nourishing and joyful, and you may be really looking forward to it, it can also feel more anxiety-provoking and triggering too. The emotional and physical distance the computer screen made possible, for many people, created a welcome shift in family dynamics and actually eased certain stressors. It made family relating feel a bit safer and more manageable. The fact is, being in the physical presence of family is different than in little boxes on a screen (that we can easily mute and disconnect).

How can you show up for this unique moment, and use the lessons you’ve learned and suffering you’ve experienced from this pandemic to return to in-person family gatherings with a renewed sense of gratitude and appreciation for those to whom we’re related, returning with love and patience? After all, you’ve been through over this last period, how can use that experience to reunite with family with an attitude of acceptance and love? And particularly, with those people with whom you may have struggled or been hurt in the past. Ultimately, how can you be with family in a new way and one that reflects your post-pandemic evolution?

What follows is a plan for a post-pandemic return to the family dinner table.

To start, newly softened and perhaps heart-opened by this pandemic, you can set the intention to approach your family with an attitude of compassion and kindness—fueled by the awareness that everyone has suffered during this time. And probably not just suffered, but also changed. That said, you can enter with an attitude of curiosity and kindness, and stay open to discover who and how everyone is at this moment now, after all we’ve been through, personally and collectively.

Furthermore, you can make use of something a friend once told me: “You don’t go to the hardware store to buy oranges.” Over the years, I’ve found this reminder to be profoundly useful in my life, and a nugget of wisdom to always bring with me when attending family gatherings, pandemic or no pandemic.

What often happens when we interact with family, is that we keep trying to get something that’s not available and not possible to get. For decades, I myself tried to get one particular relative to express interest in me, something she was clearly not willing or able to do. While I never stopped trying to change the reality, my efforts proved unsuccessful and she died without ever having asked me a single personal question, or having shown any sign of remembering anything I’d ever told her about myself or my life.

In the same way that you have to accept Covid, even though you don’t want it to be here, and that it isn’t up to you when and if it goes away, you can use this moment to accept that it’s not up to you who your family members are or how they behave. You can choose to enter with a sense of acceptance for who the people in your family actually are, in reality, and not your fantasy. In the same way that you had to surrender to the pandemic, you can surrender to the reality of your family, whether you want this reality or not. You wouldn’t go to the hardware store for oranges, or keep trying to plant orange trees in the appliances aisle and suffering from the fact that they won’t grow there. You can also stop going to the people in your family for what they’re incapable of offering or being for you. And furthermore, stop torturing yourself in trying to make them what they’re not and grieving and hating the fact that they’re not.

Finally, you can enter your family gatherings over the coming months with the clear directive to not bite the hook. When it comes to family, it usually takes us between two and 22 seconds to return to the age of 12 or 5 or whatever feels most painful. No matter how much time has passed, it doesn’t take long for us, no matter how old we are chronologically, to feel like that same little person at the childhood dinner table. We quickly revert to an old experience of ourselves, old beliefs, old wounds, and old narratives about other people and ourselves. This is not a failing on your part, but rather an actual neurological response to emotional pain. The emotional pain that’s held in the deeper parts of your brain actually takes over from the front brain (where you know you’re a grown-up with different emotional resources). But in truth, nearly two years apart can quickly become irrelevant as you become triggered before hanging up your coat. Your mantra, the one you’re going to have ready for the upcoming gatherings, then becomes don’t bite the hook.

When you feel triggered (which you might even though you’re also happy to be there) you can make a commitment to not go chasing that trigger, not feed it with the habitual narratives on what always or never happens, and all the other chapters of that toxic narrative. You nod, acknowledge the trigger inside yourself, and remind yourself that you don’t go to the hardware store for oranges, remind yourself that this is the reality of this person or relationship. With intention and kindness for yourself, you consciously (and fiercely) say to yourself (however many times you have to say it), don’t bite the hook.

A basic emotional tool kit for the return to post-pandemic in-person family gatherings:

1. Come with compassion and gratitude, remembering (and assuming) that everyone has suffered (and maybe changed) over this difficult time.

2. Remind yourself that you don’t go to the hardware store to buy oranges. Trying to get from someone what they simply cannot offer causes you to suffer.

3. Arrive with the mantra don’t bite the hook—don’t chase your triggers and triggering narratives down the rabbit hole (to a hell-scape of your own creation).

It’s so exciting and joyful to be returning to in-person family gatherings (assuming we get to do this).

James Kovin/Unsplash
Source: James Kovin/Unsplash

The prospect of actually getting to hug and be near those we love feels rich with profundity and meaning. It may also feel a little bit daunting, to be in the actual room with family and give up the buffer (and safety) of the screen. Don’t fault yourself for also, possibly, feeling a bit of trepidation. It’s normal; it’s a big deal to re-enter these relationships in the flesh. Relish the gratitude and love you feel—and—enter with awareness, and make plans to take good care of yourself.

One Response

  1. Thank you for this article! We’re taking our children, their spouses and our young grandchildren on a very special vacation this summer to celebrate my husband’s retirement, and though I’m looking forward to being with everyone, there are lurking triggers and possibilities for discord. There’s been a divorce, so one son will be alone, and the other son and his wife, though really good people, have chosen a very different life style & very different politics than the rest of us. Thank you for the “Mantra” suggestion!! Embrace the good; embrace the good; embrace the good! Grace between stimulus & response; curiosity between stimulus and response; patience between stimulus & response! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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