Written by Katie Rosseinsky
Find yourself throwing strops over Christmas presents and snapping at the most inoffensive of comments? Two therapists explain why we get trapped in old behaviour patterns over the festive season – and how we can break out of the habit.
Stepping through the door of your family home in the run-up to Christmas can sometimes feel a bit like falling into a portal to the past – and not just because your mum has decided that the tree just isn’t the same without the angel that you carefully crafted from toilet roll and paper doilies sometime in the late 90s.
You hopped off the train or pulled up on the driveway as a fully functioning, grown-up member of society, someone with responsibilities (or at the very least, someone with thriving houseplants) and opinions. Then suddenly, something happens. You’re fighting with your (equally grown-up) siblings over who’s been taking all the good ones from the Celebrations tin, throwing a strop because someone got a better present than you or battling with your grandparents for supremacy over the TV remote.
Somehow, terrifyingly, it’s as if your 14-year-old self has made a comeback, emerging from underneath all your better habits and good intentions; you’ve regressed to an adolescent state, complete with not-so-charming interpersonal skills and a total disregard for conflict resolution.
“A regression, in clinical terms, is where we psychologically revert to an earlier stage of development,” says Mark Vahrmeyer, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). “The theory posits that infantile states of development are, at least for the vast majority of us, not fully outgrown and therefore when we are experiencing high levels of anxiety, regression can be something that happens to us as a form of defence against the powerful feelings.”
So, however much we’ve grown up, our old behaviours might still be there below the surface, and it’s high-pressure situations like Christmas, where expectations and emotions run high, that bring them out. “There’s no delete button in our brain,” adds counsellor Juulia Karlstedt. “As we change and grow we lay new neural pathways on top of old ones. It is easy to choose those new ways of behaving in low-stress situations and becomes increasingly difficult the more stress we find ourselves under. Essentially, during stressful situations, our brain goes on autopilot and chooses the neural pathway that is most established for the situation we find ourselves in.”
As our family dynamics have played out for decades, they are “very deeply rooted” neural pathways in our brains, Karlstedt explains. Plus, often the dynamic is managed by everyone in the family playing a specific role “Even as adults, our parents can sometimes continue to talk and interact with our ‘inner child’ and we can, in turn, end up reacting from that childlike place.” This isn’t always necessarily a bad thing; sometimes it can be “nurturing and nostalgic”, but it can also, Karlstedt says, remind us of dynamics that were hurtful or take us back to a rebellious childlike space, while our parents might connect with their inner disciplinarian. Cue clashes.
Combine the heightened stress levels of the festive period with all those traditions and memories – the “coming together of family in a setting and with a set of collective expectations and dynamics that repeat each year and in a setting filled with memories”, as Vahrmeyer puts it, and it’s hardly a surprise that Christmas is such a common trigger for dragging our teenage tendencies to the surface. Plus, he adds: “Throw in a good dose of alcohol and the likelihood of regressions increases exponentially.”
So, if you’ve noticed yourself slipping back into bad habits at what’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, what’s the best course of action? Your main aim, Karlstedt says, should be to relate to your family as the adult you now are, rather than the person you were 15 years ago. Before you return home for Christmas, take some time to think about how you want to relate to your family as your adult self, she recommends. “See if you can write down some specific behaviours that you would want to engage with this Christmas. Maybe you want to set certain boundaries or behave in a different way during a predictable situation.”
She then suggests practising “this new way of behaving” with a friend or partner – and if you’re attending events with them, Vahrmeyer adds, you can enlist them as an ally – someone you can turn to if you notice that you are starting to feel difficult feelings. It’s also worth examining your expectations around Christmas itself. “Try and remove some of the pressure and expectation on Christmas and hold onto the thought that it is simply a day that rolls around every year – it won’t be perfect and nor should it have to be,” he adds.
“Try to engage with your family in a mindful way rather than on autopilot,” Karlstedt advises. That might mean watching your alcohol consumption (alcohol makes it harder for us to hold onto a thinking mind and regressions become far more likely, Vahrmeyer says) or just spending a bit of time taking some deep breaths or doing meditation… to enter into the situation more grounded in your current self, Karlstedt recommends.
“If you notice you’ve fallen into old patterns, step back and recommit to the new behaviours you have chosen for yourself,” she adds. “Be compassionate and patient with yourself. Changing old habits is hard and no one gets it right on the first few tries.”
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