Family Funhouse Mirrors and the Holidays

Each day, we reinvent: we try a new hairstyle, offer a new strategy at work that gets props, we go an extra 5 minutes on the treadmill. The people closest to us see those moments of growth: our partners and co-workers notice the new look or high-five you in the hallway.

Each week, we reinvent: we stay late on Friday to impress the boss, we visit with our therapist and friends to stay balanced, we deposit funds into our bank account. The banker, the grocery store clerk, our neighbors and friends notice the changes.

Monthly, your change is noticed by those you share space with; your growth is witnessed and celebrated – even our setbacks are flanked by how we cope with the rest of life, not a solitary event, but a small part of the whole picture of you.

And then we go home for the holidays.

For some, regardless of Facebook and social media – we are, in their eyes, the person they grew up with, or at best, saw last. If you’ve lost weight, started a new job, made self-improvements, have a new relationship (or ended one) – you are yourself when they knew you well last: for most people, that was when we were kids.

In many cases, even when you patiently explain that now you are the regional manager at your company, in their minds, you’re still selling blue lemonade with your cousins. If you’re identifying as single after a long marriage, your distant relatives will remind you of the lukewarm soup served at your wedding. And when you politely excuse yourself from the holiday table after multiple slurs against a particular demographic, you’re asked to grow up, that’s just how Uncle Jimmy is.

As if the days and weeks of self-improvements never happened. As if you are spiraled back in time to a characterization of your earlier self with your growth diminished and your flaws dragged from the depths and magnified – year after year.

The backlash happens afterwards. Suddenly the mirror, your friends, co-workers and partners are not your method of measure. Your own sense of self is deemed unreliable as well, and replaced with the altered version of you.

Most of us would say, well, I can’t not go home/see my family. But you can limit the impact of it on yourself.

  • Enlist a conspirator. A friend or partner to attend the festivities with you will keep the real you centered.

  • If you usually stay in your childhood bedroom, ask to be in a different room or if possible, book a room elsewhere. Our surroundings influence our perception of self.

  • Set alarms on your phone to go off or schedule periodic breaks to ‘handle a thing at work.’ Privately, review a list of your recent personal successes. Look at your recent posts on social media – you have changed.

  • Try to see them through a compassionate lens. It is hard to be both sympathetic and disgusted at the same time.

  • Recognize that they are not all equal in their awfulness. Most families have a primary perpetrator and a wingman or two, the rest are merely going along with it all to avoid conflict or so they don’t have to consider their own beliefs. You may not have allies, but hopefully, there are a few less-egregious types to share space with.

You will return to your life in a few days. Re-engage with your coworkers, your friends, the banker and grocery store clerk. You will continue to grow. The hall of mirrors may be tradition, but it is temporary.

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