For those of you with dysfunctional families who just survived another painful Christmas, some notes:
~ Congratulations. You didn’t murder anyone. You didn’t kill yourself, either. You’re not in a holding cell or a hospital. Sure, you sustained some emotional wounds. But it’s over now. You survived another one. Congratulations.
~ Forgive yourself. Maybe you failed to make everyone happy. Maybe you weren’t as happy as you hoped to be. Maybe you ate, drank, spent, or something-else too much. Maybe you lost it with someone. Maybe things went off the rails in another way. Fuck it. You did the best you could this year. It’s over. Move on.
~ Make lemonade. A dysfunctional family is a heartless machine; it chews up everyone unlucky enough to get tangled in its gears. It’s nobody’s fault, really. Most of the machine’s victims don’t set out to hurt others. They just do the best they can with impaired understanding and limited resources. The real enemy here is a pathology so complex and subtle it takes therapists years of study to figure it out. What can you do? Make lemonade out of this lemony Christmas. Learn something about why things went wrong. The most important lesson may be to have more realistic expectations next year — of yourself, other people, of the holiday itself. If you can learn that, and go into next Christmas with your eyes wide open, maybe this will be the last really bad one.
Bert and I have learned two things about expectations.
The first thing:
1. An expectation is an attempt to control something.
It’s a sort of demand we make on the future.
“It must be like this,” we tell ourselves. “And if it’s not, I won’t be happy.”
Then it’s not. And we’re not.
The second thing is:
2. Expectations are killers.
They kill all sorts of important living things.
Spontaneity. Spontaneity means freedom — being able to express yourself without fear or constraint. But expectations are both judgmental and constraining. (Listen up, future: I want this to happen, and not that.) Expecting A prevents you from accepting and embracing B, or C, or D. That includes what comes to you from your environment and what comes up inside you, your own feelings and responses. Expectations are emotional handcuffs.
Pleasure. However else you define pleasure, it’s certainly a feeling. And expectations generally undermine our ability to feel. They’re born in our heads, while feelings live in our bodies. They’re future-oriented, where feelings occur only in the now. They’re controlling, where feeling (especially the feeling of pleasure) involves surrendering to an experience. And they’re born out of fear (I really don’t want X to happen). And nothing kills pleasure deader than fear.
Love. Real love, the kind we all crave, depends on safety — knowing you can be yourself and not be punished for it. How can you feel that if you’re worried about meeting someone’s expectations? How can they feel it if they’re worrying about meeting yours?
Why write about expectations just now?
That should be obvious.
‘Tis the season to be expecting.
And expectations are the main reason so many people suffer emotionally at this time of year.
We expect to feel a certain way, and usually don’t.
We buy with one eye on what people expect of us, and the other on what we expect of them.
And we compare where we are this December to where we were last December, and to where we’d expected to be by now.
Let’s be realistic, though. Expectations are difficult to give up. No one who reads this is going to suddenly stop expecting.
But you can take note of what you’re expecting.
And you can distinguish the expectations that are really important from the one are just bad habits.
And you can consider tossing out a few of the less important ones.
See how you feel.
Better, I bet.
Lighter. Freer. More accepting. More loving.
Not a bad way to feel heading into a new year.
In an Italian plaza, orchestra and chorus assemble one by one, and perform Beethoven’s Ode to Joy for delighted passers-by.
In group. “So the bad news is I still hate them, and they’re coming for Christmas,” says Dennis. “But the good news is, this year I think I can detach. I think I can step back and not let them bother me.”
“Wow,” someone says.
“Not me,” says Emma. “I hate my inlaws too, and they’re coming. But I can’t detach. The best I can do is hate them secretly. You know, bite my tongue and avoid conflict.”
The group looks sympathetic.
“What’s the difference?” asks Frank. “Steve, what’s the difference between detaching and just avoiding conflict?”
“What do you think?” I ask the group.
They frown a collective frown.
“Dennis, what does detaching feel like to you?”
He thinks. “Calm,” he says finally. “Relieved. Like the problem has stopped being a problem.”
“And Emma, when you’re avoiding conflict, how do you feel?”
“Awful,” she says. “Inside I’m scared, angry, self-conscious, confused.”
“Not at all.”
“So there’s one difference,” I say. “Detachment lowers anxiety. Avoiding conflict tends to raise it.”
“But why?” Frank asks.
“Well, controlling behavior usually raises anxiety, and that’s what conflict avoidance is — manipulation, a kind of secret controlling. You can’t see Emma doing it, but inside she’s controlling like crazy: watching, worrying, stuffing her feelings and waiting for something bad to happen. Right?” Emma nods glumly. “Whereas detaching avoids all that internal mess.”
“I’m still confused,” Frank says. “How do I know when I’m doing one or the other?”
“There are two ways,” I say.
“The first is to ask yourself, Where’s my attention? Control addicts focus outside, on the people/places/things they want to control. But to detach is to turn inward, shift attention to our own feelings and needs. It’s like taking our energy back.”
“That’s true,” Dennis says. “When I’m controlling I’m edgy and tired. When I detach I feel relaxed and strong.”
“And the second way?” Frank asks.
“That’s more subtle. Ask yourself, How old do I feel?”
“Right. Remember, control is what kids do. Kids have no power. Kids can’t take care of themselves, can’t even stand up for themselves most of the time. So they have to manipulate the big people around them. But real adults can stop controlling and act in service of their own needs. That’s what I mean by power.
“So if you find yourself feeling powerful, like the grownup you are, you’re detaching. And if you feel like the scared kid you used to be, you’re probably still controlling the way kids do.”