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The Ties That Bind

Taking Control: How to Prepare

According to the professionals, my holiday experience is typical. "It's natural to regress," says San Francisco therapist Linda Gourley, PhD. "You're not five any longer, not physically, emotionally, or cognitively. But when you're in that situation, old habits return."

Still, progress is possible. "If you anticipate conflict before it happens," says David Presti, PhD, a clinical psychologist and neurobiology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, "then you have a little bit more choice in the matter. You're still going to be pulled to react in old ways, but you can modulate it. People do." You can actually prepare and upgrade your holiday standard by considering a few issues in advance.

  • Decide why you're going home. To satisfy yourself? To satisfy someone else? It helps to know why.
  • Plan a reasonable, limited visit. As George Bernard Shaw said, "A perpetual holiday is a good working definition of hell."
  • Reflect on your expectations and whether they're reasonable. Do you believe a major family conflict will suddenly disappear with the magic of the holidays? "That," says Gourley, "probably won't happen. Doomed illusions just set you up for disappointment."
  • Know your limits and your buttons. Presti says, "If you have insight into your buttons and how your family might push them, you can prepare. You can say: 'I'm going to use this as a positive experience to avoid reacting in my old ways.'"
  • Watch out for the urge to control. Instead, come equipped with gracious verbal outs to defuse potential conflicts.
  • You'll always be somebody's child or sibling at home. "You respect that the situation may not be ideal, but it's temporary," says Gourley. "You're going to get back to your world."

Returning Home From Home

The next morning, I'm at the airport again. My mother gets teary about how wonderful it was to see me, and clamps me in an iron hug. It's my visit in a nutshell, enveloping me in love while squeezing the life out of me. The author Dodie Smith calls family "that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape." But if escape isn't an option, we can at least make our peace with our own personal octopuses, and rise above the conflicts. And maybe even grow up a little bit.


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