Classic advice for coping with the family at a stressful time
If you are someone who loves spending intimate, quality holiday time with your family, sitting around the Thanksgiving table or Christmas tree with siblings, in-laws, aunts, uncles and assorted others, raise your drumstick high! Count your blessings—because you may well be among the fortunate minority.
One of my best friends in California comes from just such a loving family. Sure, there’s the occasional affair or divorce scandal. Or a young male cousin eschews the family business for a life in the theatre. But through ups and downs they form a very loving (and fun-loving) clan. Once a year, all the women go on a shopping, partying, beaching weekend, while all the men go on a camping, golfing, hunting-and-gathering weekend. Outsiders are welcome at their holiday tables, and there’s always a gift under the tree with my name on it.
But I don’t hear of too many stories like theirs. Partly because of my line of work, but also because I don’t think a lot of families genuinely get along so well. Too many unresolved issues and unspoken rivalries. Prickly histories. Big pink elephants in the middle of the room that no one talks about. I tend to believe the term “dysfunctional family” is redundant…to one degree or another.
Let’s face it: There’s a degree of dysfunction in every family. Why? Several reasons: There’s no such thing as perfect parenting. Adult children screw up. Addictions happen. Illness, loss and death take their psychological toll. And the human condition is such that it’s easier to maintain the status quo than it is to rock the boat in an attempt to create healthy change. Old habits die hard with us humans, and while it may be better to forgive, it’s hard to forget.
If you’re the black sheep of your family with, for instance, political, spiritual, sexual, or other leanings that diverge from the “accepted” rules—some spoken and some not—then you probably know how it feels to be the outsider. Maybe as a kid you had great fun spending summers playing volleyball and croquet in grandmother’s back yard. But now maybe you’re the one they roll their eyes over. Maybe you’re the one who married out of your race or religion.
Or maybe you’re the one who’s gay or lesbian, trans or queer.
Every family has ’em. Every single family. Read that again: Every. Single. Family. You may not know who for sure, but you have your suspicions. Scurry around the limbs of your family tree for a closer look, sweep aside your denial. They are there. And you know, for an unaccepted or closeted gay person, the holidays can be an exercise in prolonged agony. Fielding endless questions from Aunt Helen about when you’re going to find a nice girl (lesbians, read: nice boy) to settle down with. Enduring Uncle Hank’s homophobic jokes and cringing as your loved ones laugh.
Sometimes you just can’t believe you come from these people. You’re from gay Pluto and they’re from Mars-a-phobia and you’re a galaxy away from seeing eye-to-eye on anything. So you drink more spiked punch, scarf down more tryptophan, and numb out, silently counting the minutes till you’ve served your sentence.
Know anyone for whom this may be true? Someone you love and care about, perhaps? Could you unknowingly be putting your son or daughter, niece or nephew through this? Because frankly, a surprising number of families do. One thing that has become very clear to me since moving to the South is the tremendous struggle over “the gay thing.” LGBT folks are struggling for understanding from their loved ones, and loved ones are struggling to reconcile their feelings with the beliefs they are taught from the pulpit.
Sometimes this takes the form of intelligent, thoughtful conversation, and sometimes it’s a train wreck. No easy answers, but there are questions for you to ask yourself. Are you an accepting person? A loving person? Someone open to opening the envelope a bit wider?
Yes, times are indeed changing, both politically and spiritually, and I see more and more acceptance, especially for and among young people who, with enough love, learn to accept themselves—and develop healthy self-esteem—at earlier ages. Nevertheless, for too many, this is not the case. Which is why the suicide rate for teens even suspected of being LGBT is over a third higher than the national average.
This holiday season, consider this: Be aware of how your words and deeds affect others. Come from a place of compassion with every opportunity. Be thankful for those you love, and let them know it—often and without hesitation. Break bread, pass the yams, and raise a glass in honor of each and every person at your table, without prejudice.
Till next time, I leave you with two inspirations. A Native American saying: “The Creator never made anyone different without giving them something special.” And from Gandhi: “Be truthful, gentle, and fearless.”
Dr. Rick Pimental-Habib, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, author, minister, and educator in private practice in Chattanooga. Contact him at DrRPH.com, visit his wellness center at WellNestChattanooga.com and follow his daily inspirations on Twitter: @DrRickWellNest