This time of year is all about families getting together and celebrating what’s important. However, there’s another element to a gathering of so many adult relatives for Christmas.
It’s called “revertigo”: when people slip into old patterns from earlier in their lives.
You may already know the drill — your grown-up children revert to bickering over the roast turkey, or maybe the youngest is still deemed the “favorite,” so everyone's feathers get a little ruffled. Perhaps you and your siblings even go at it like old times!
For those few days together, it’s as if everyone forgets they’re all well-functioning, responsible members of society, and instead they’re back in the sandpit.
But don’t feel like it’s just your family — Relationships Australia reveals that a high proportion of people feel their family relationships are negatively affected at Christmas, despite all the joy to the world.
Heading down memory lane
So why can this happen?
No matter how much time has passed, returning to the family home can be emotional. Unsurprisingly, people fall back into the “games, dances, and dynamics” of old relationships, says Sydney-based psychologist Clare Mann. Memories are dragged up, the same stories and in-jokes are rehashed to the point of nausea, and long-standing disagreements resurface.
“It’s almost like suddenly everyone’s on autopilot,” Clare explains. “Our defenses come down, especially if we’ve had a drink, too, and we slot back into that old way of being.”
Neuroscience may also have something to do with old habits and behaviors cropping up.
Turns out that even when people have the very best of intentions, sometimes patterns are hardwired into our brains. Research even shows emotions can be elicited from different environments, so something as familiar as a childhood home can be a powerful trigger for some people. And, like many of our family histories, that can mean the good, the bad, and often the downright complicated!
Smell is another evocative prompt for rebooting memories, according to the journal Cognition and Emotion. Once you throw in sleeping in a childhood room or backyard cricket, it can be a fast track to a psychological minefield. “People slide back into those roles and then buttons get pressed,” Clare says.
“This is because our unconscious intentions and behaviors can be more influential than our conscious desires. Our brains are so used to being a certain way with our families that it just slips and slots us back into that old routine.”
Even if that’s not what you really want.
A Bright Outlook
Every festive season is filled with so many expectations for things to be perfect. Guess what? That’s not going to happen! Perspective is key.
“This year, ask yourself what you’d like to get out of Christmas with your family in an ideal world,” Clare says. “Then, after looking at your family’s history and reality, ask yourself what you’re likely to get. That way, you’re not setting yourself up for disappointment.”
It’s also worth rethinking how you approach others. If you’re expecting someone to act in a negative way — and treat them as such — they’ll probably play up to that.
“We can’t change the world, but if we change ourselves then we change our world, ” she adds.
Change starts with you. So if you fall into patterns that no longer make you happy, remind yourself that it’s alright to let go of the past and not play that role anymore.
Perhaps your family may create some wonderful new habits and rituals as adults that last a lifetime.
Your Holiday Toolkit
Take this advice on board for when the family rolls in this Christmas
✔ Take time-outs.
When you’re exhausted your defenses are down, so time-outs are important. “Just say to everyone, ‘I’m going to have a little lie-down for a little bit,’” Clare suggests. Once you have some privacy, take some deep breaths and try not to go over any arguments in your head. Instead, try to put things in perspective and be the best you can be when you rejoin the group.
✔ Admit your part.
Self-awareness is essential. "Ask yourself, 'What is my part in all of this?'" Clare says. “What is the tone of my voice? And what about my raised eyebrows? Once you change your behavior, then it will change your dynamic with others as they can no longer tap into your old reactions.”
✔ Listen and ask questions.
It sounds obvious, but it’s not always easy — especially if something is said that makes you feel defensive. Luckily, it’s possible to get everyone on the same page. “Maintain an open mind and ask more questions to clarify what they are really saying,” Clare says. “Questions like, ‘What do you mean by that?’ and, ‘Can you give me a specific example?’ can be very helpful.”
✔ Plan activities.
She says, “When we haven’t seen people all year, then we sit in the same room for hours on end with alcohol and heavy food, is it any wonder that problems start?” To reduce the risk, suggest an activity such as playing board games, going for a walk, watching a movie, or even enjoying a nap!
✔ Child’s Play
Try to diffuse conflicts arising from the tendency to regress to old behaviors at adult gatherings.
This post was written by Gabrielle Tozer. For more, check out our sister site Now to Love.