Last weekend was the first time in my entire life where I witnessed nearly every member of my extended family (both paternal and maternal) reunited in the same room. It was my brother’s wedding and a grand total of 12 aunts and uncles, 12 cousins and 3 grandparents made the trip. Now as an introvert (and especially as an INFJ), I’m highly sensitive to large groups of people. This sensitivity, however, is heightened tenfold when it comes to time spent with family members.
Because no one else triggers you quite like your family does.
So, as I people-watched and anxiously moderated the evening (as an older sister would at her brother’s wedding), I began noticing a lot of cracks in the surface, as one often does when analyzing a crowd.
And while I didn’t have the opportunity to get into a deep conversation with many family members, I did manage to chronicle a list of thoughts inspired by that evening that may impart some wisdom more generally.
1. Be mindful.
Life is not a dress rehearsal. I’ll remember what you say, even when you don’t. At some point during my late teens and early twenties, my ignorance waned and I reconciled the fact that people who were older than me, especially family members, were not always justified and appropriate in their actions simply because they said so. I can now distinguish between a clean joke and a transparent insult. I also know that regardless of who you are, you’re not given a free pass to say whatever you want without consequence. So be intentional with your actions and communications so that you’ll have nothing to clean up later on.
Please stop commenting on my weight. I’m not going to get into the politics of whether being called “too skinny” is preferable to being called “too fat” or vice versa (although, I’d argue one is largely more tolerated than the other). The point of the matter is that by commenting on someone’s weight, you’re suggesting two things: that you think you have an opinion on how heavy another should be, and that how someone currently looks is unsatisfactory to you. By implying that a person is too much something or not enough something else, you’re simply telling the world that you have an issue with weight. So please, don’t make the issue any more contagious than it already is.
Look in the mirror before you judge others. I can’t understand how it is that some people are so judgmental of others and yet fail to practice what they preach. Perhaps we cast stones as a slight of hand in order to distract the eye from our own issues. Maybe it’s just an inherent ignorance or jealousy that manifests as overt criticism. Regardless, we’d all be a little better off if we tended to our own gardens before judging the quality of another’s. There’s a lot more merit in having integrity and being a half decent person than there is in owning a big house or having an important title after your name.
2. You’re not alone.
What’s bred in the bone will come out in the flesh. As much as we may hate to admit it, we likely share more similarities than differences with our family members. And although we do take our own unique paths, there are many beliefs and values that we’ve had embedded from a very young age. I believe that if you can’t identify the things you dislike with how you were raised, you’re more inclined to repeat them while raising your own children. It’s not about avoiding who you are, it’s about fostering the self-awareness to recognize when something doesn’t feel good for you, and working hard at learning an alternative route.
I’ve (likely) been there too. No matter what my family members are going through, it’s a fair bet that I’ve likely experienced it (or something similar to it). Just because someone lives in a different city or is currently in different life stage, doesn’t mean they won’t make time for you when you need it. I didn’t have an older sibling to ask advice from when I was younger, so I’ve focused a lot of my recent years on becoming the voice that I needed to hear. And at the end of the day, you may be pleasantly surprised at some of the unspoken wisdom that people have curated throughout their vast experiences.
The way out isn’t to escape. When I was younger, it seemed as though every time adults got together, they always had the greatest time. Now that I’m older, it’s sobering to realize that getting together with the friends and family during special occasions often means it’s time to escape the stresses and pressures of everyday life. So some of us drink a bit more than we usually do, dance a little longer than we’re used to, and make every effort to leave our self-control at the door. And while I don’t mean to sound self-righteous, I’ve really been focusing on living my life in a way where I don’t seek to escape from it at every opportunity. Because leaning into the mess and facing it head on is the only way to clean it up.
3. There’s no glory in perfection.
Our parents are not all-knowing. There’s no denying the fact that perfectionism runs rampant in many families. We’re groomed from a young age to place heavy value on achievements and on “appearing successful”. But something I learned along the way is that our parents were only doing the best they knew how to, largely based upon how they were raised. And the same can be said about our grandparents. Now I’m currently at the age my parents were when they had me, and I can tell you that witnessing their divorce in my twenties spoke volumes about just how much they hadn’t figured out yet. That’s just to say that you don’t have to blindly follow in your parents’ footsteps just because they’re walking ahead of you. Forge your own path.
Failing doesn’t make you a failure. It’s more than okay to make mistakes. In fact, it’s a wonderful way to learn something new. You’ll never be able to avoid mistakes, but you’ll definitely fail at being resilient in the face of adversity if you don’t tolerate imperfections. Besides, without the messiness of life, we miss out on its true beauty — and we entirely miss the point. Instead of hiding what you perceive to be a failure, talk about it. Work through it. Ask for help. We’re all in this together. Striving for perfection is an attempt at avoiding reality.
It’s a common misconception that if we only look our best, do our best and be the best, we can avoid the pain of rejection. So we focus on over-glorifying what others can see (big house, fancy car, expensive trips), and we hide things they cannot see (depression, debt, divorce). When we can’t talk about how we truly feel because it doesn’t fit into the framework of the “perfect life”, we’re doing ourselves (and others) a large disservice. We all struggle, and we all deserve to know we’re not alone in our struggles.
You see, like most families, mine is composed of people who are loving, funny, flawed and at times, very dysfunctional. But we don’t talk about it. We can’t talk about it. And to be honest, that’s the beginning and end of what plagues most of us as humans. And so, talk about it I will.