Day 16 NaBloPoMo: Dealing with Xmas emotions

Several people I know have talked about Dialectical Behaviour Therapy recently. It doesn’t really matter what the technique is, only that it is designed to help those who have strong emotional reactions to situations which leave them hurt and upset for a long time afterwards.


Christmas is traditionally a bad time for people with mental illness or emotional and personality disturbances. This is usually because Christmas has been the time when families are meant to get together as a whole to try to demonstrate to each other that are a loving unit. Many of us are brought up to think that harmony is the norm and we feel guilty or disappointed when our get-togethers are less than satisfying. Other people think that Christmas OWES them something, somehow and when it isn’t all cupcakes and sparkles they are hurt and let down that “they” didn’t make them happy.


I remember Christmas as a pretty mild occasion- as the only child of older parents with no other family for hundreds of kilometres. We usually had a tree collected from the bush- a she-oak was the most common. We decorated it and I made decorations for it as I got older. Under the tree was a small pile of presents and my only complaint was that I never really got what I wanted and nothing seemed to be “grand” enough- I’m still rather greedy!! My parents were actually trying to keep the “tall poppy” down to size by not giving me a huge pile of presents like the streotyped “spoiled only child”. This didn;’t help me at the time and I still like to get a small pile of presents now!


However, Christmas was not a time of conflict and high emotion. It was predictable and calm and we got to eat yummy things. Mum made fantastic Christmas cakes and home-made icecreams and we always bought some expensive stone fruit to eat which was off the menu the rest of the year. There were no special rituals in which I had to participate under threat of death or worse- like the kids over the road had to go to Midnight Mass or whatever, even though the whole family was non-practising Catholics! There were so many yelling matches as the kids got older, trying to get out of going to church! My father was a church-goer, but he never insisted we go on Christmas Day, but sometimes we did for the nice singing and the lovely decorations in the church. For the kids over the road and some of my current friends, Christmas is a FORCED social confinement with people they would rather not spend time with.


So the setting for Christmas emotional difficulties comes from early childhood and people continue to repeat those patterns because they are tied to “tradition”. They seem to be blackmailed by the other members of the family’s expectations and are unable to break the cycle. Cooped up together every Christmas for years and years, emotions become more focused and magnified, until some families come to blows- or even shots! When they talk to each other they inevitably go over the same old ground which provoked trouble the previous year, the emotion racks up in the closed environment and under the influence of alcohol and insufficient sleep. Younger members of the family are added each year and usually include babies and toddlers who are naturally unable to control their emotions. This sets the adults off as well until there are three-ring circuses wherever you look (or hear, if you are neighbours!).


Dialectical Behaviour Therapy lets people address the different aspects of themselves and their social situations within their families, making it more obvious how futile and over-the-top certain reactions are. People can then learn to reconstruct the habitual “conversations” they get caught up in and go in different directions that they can choose. It is amazing how differently you can interact with your family members if you just don’t “take the bait” which set you off into a mad rant last year. With experience and skill you may come to choose NOT to mix with certain people at Christmas, or to see them in small chunks that you can control, eg. having a picnic away from the household with just your brothers and sisters. Eventually you can use your emotions constructively and regulate how much you react when “baited” topics come up. When you truly “own” your reactions and stop blaming them on others (they are inside your head), you can be the best social engineer in your family. It’s interesting to see whether anyone notices – maybe years later- and attributes the change to you.


NB. I am NOT a therapist and have little knowledge of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy in practice. If I am grossly out of line, please educate me. I am merely relating my interpretation of what people have told me about their experiences in DBT.


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