By Dr. Samantha Rodman, Clinical Psychologist
Ah, family time. On TV, it seems like getting together with your family is nothing but fun, inside jokes, and loving glances from the people who know you best.
In reality, though, family time can look very different. Spending time with the people you grew up with often makes people feel angry, sad, inadequate, bored, and of course, guilty for those very feelings.
So, why does family time always seem to bring out your worst self?
The answer has to do with how your brain is wired. Family time puts you right back into the environment in which you grew up. This means that your brain reacts almost as though you are a child or teenager again, in the best ways for some and the worst ways for others.
While people who grew up securely attached can feel happy and warm when reunited with family, it is a very different story for those of us who grew up feeling less than secure in our home life. For those, visiting or even speaking to family can make you feel insecure, anxious, and highly reactive.
For example, if you grew up fighting with your intrusive mother, then it can be very triggering to go home. You hope for a friendly and casual visit, but may be bombarded with questions about whether you’re datinganyone, or if you’re managing your finances adequately.
If you and your brother fought like cats and dogs and he tended to tease you about your weight growing up, then you may revert to a defensive, anxious stance, even if he’s now 35 and fairly polite.
And if your dad drank too much when you were a kid, you may still harbor anger toward him even if he’s 15 years sober.
It is essential to recognize that your brain has a conscious and a subconscious level. When you are placed in the same situation, and the same people you grew up around, your brain automatically responds as though you were a child again.
Show yourself some self-compassion and do not beat yourself up for how you act when you’re around your family. Your brain is essentially on autopilot, and you are in fight or flight mode, with all systems activated due to the stress of finding yourself in old situations that trigger you psychologically.
This is not a conscious choice, and is why your most valiant resolutions to respond maturely to your family may go by the wayside when you’re actually confronted with feelings from your past.
However, if you find yourself continually struggling with how you feel about your family and how you behave when you are around them, therapy could be very useful.
Specifically, your triggers may be more readily processed and resolved by working with a skilled, insight-oriented therapist. Therapy can help you understand the root of your triggers, and help you slow things down so that you can respond in a way that is in line with your adult identity and values.
Originally published on Talkspace.
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