Have you ever noticed how going home for the holidays can bring out the most wounded, difficult version of your inner wounded child?
You may have been out of the house as an adult for years, but the minute you walk back through the doors of your childhood home, you revert back to some younger version of yourself with old stories and resentments and wounds pulling your strings and dictating your reactions as if you are nothing but an oversized marionette.
You react to your older brother's latest story about his successes in the workplace with all the jealousy of a younger sibling who's been denied entry into the coveted circle of the games and activities of the big kids.
You respond to your younger sister's story of her most recent vacation with the resentment of an older sibling watching the youngest get away with things that your parents denied you at the same age.
You interact with your parents with the same simmering rage of a teenager who's convinced they are keeping her from truly enjoying life with their rules and restrictions and limitations.
Long-forgotten stories, wounds, and arguments from decades ago parade through your mind in living, vivid color, dragging your emotions and reactions along with them on their wild ride.
What do you do when the wounded past commandeers your present this way?
Recognize what's happening
The first step is simply recognizing what is happening within you.
It significantly defuses the present moment when you recognize that what you are feeling has very little to do with the latest extravagant purchase you sister made and is really all about leftover resentment about how she got the gift you had wanted so badly on that long ago Christmas instead of you.
When you acknowledge the presence of these stories from the past yanking your strings and dictating your emotions, you take away much of their power to control you.
Find the story beneath the story
It's seldom the actual story from the past that really has so much power over you. It's usually the meaning you give to the events (the story beneath the story) that is still causing you pain.
After all, you are no longer truly longing for the Big Wheel with flames down the side; you're too big to ride it anyway. What still hurts is the conviction that your parents love your brother more than you because he got one and you didn't.
Identifying these deeper stories gives you an opening into dealing with the real wound in a productive way instead of rehearsing old stories that just fuel the flames.
Come back to the present
As strong as the specter of the past may be, the present moment is still all we can change.
Once we've clearly identified what it is from our past that is yanking our strings, we can come back to the present moment more under our own control.
We can still acknowledge and recognize the old emotions that flare up, but we have a greater ability to choose not to act on them in this moment.
That doesn't mean that we stifle our emotions or deny them in any way. We just give ourselves enough space to choose not to be controlled by them.
We can still choose to deal with the wounds and the deeper stories at another time when we are less triggered, and we can still honor what we are feeling and experiencing even as we choose to respond to others from a different place.
Be kind to yourself
Recognizing these old wounds and challenges they are creating for being the person you want to be in the present moment opens the door to self-compassion in place of self-condemnation.
Even if you find yourself getting sucked into old reactions time and time again, this is not a place for beating yourself up. Just cut the strings once again, come back to the present, and choose differently. Repeat as many times as you need to.
You can also choose to give yourself mini-breaks to regain your emotional equilibrium. Volunteer to run that errand to the store to pick up what was forgotten. Take a solo walk around the block. Even hiding in the bathroom now and then is a great way to come back to yourself in the now.
Rather than dwelling on perceived (or real) slights from family members (past or present), keep reminding yourself of who you are, what you have accomplished, and the life you have built for yourself. Focus on your wins and the person you are becoming. Those are reasons for self-appreciation, whether they agree with that assessment or not.
Reach out for support from loving friends, as needed during your visit. Friends who will remind you of how loved and appreciated you truly are when you lose sight of that reality.
Give your family a break
Keep in mind that your family members are likely reacting to you from the wounds of their pasts just as much as you are.
They are most likely not bringing their best selves to the moment if they are being pulled about by the strings of their version of stories from the past (and the stories beneath them).
It doesn't justify any unkindness in the present moment, but it does make it a little more understandable. (And thus makes it easier not to take any of it personally since they aren't reacting to the present moment anyway.)
Hang on to the things you genuinely appreciate about them, and let their more challenging traits slide like sand through your fingers. There's freedom in letting that stuff go.
This reversion to our wounded inner children during holiday visits may be an automatic reaction, but that doesn't mean that we have to let it control us. We can still choose to be the person we want to be in the present moment despite those old strings trying to pull us off-balance.
How do you deal with this reversion to the past in your family gatherings?
What have you found to be helpful for staying in the present when the ghosts of the past arise?
I wish each of you a peace-filled holiday this year and the fortitude to stay in the present moment uncontrolled by the wounds of the past as you deal with family celebrations.
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