The Holidays and Family: From Disappointment to Love
When I think of family, two things come to mind: love and dysfunction. And the two seem to go hand in hand. Where there is love, there is closeness. And where there is intimacy there is dysfunction.
Family is expected to appreciate, cherish, and celebrate us more than anyone else. And as we all know too well, the higher the expectations, the greater the possibility of disappointment.
Whether it’s the holiday season, an anniversary, or a birthday among the so many occasions we share with our families, there comes a time of unmet expectations and disappointment—a forgotten anniversary, a not so thoughtful gift (or no gift at all), or not even a simple thank you for the hours spent on that special dinner.
One disappointment after another and we’re resenting the people we love the most.
This time of the year can be a great opportunity for love, growth, and renewal. I invite you to try the following with me. My hope is to experience the holidays (or any other occasion) with more joy and openness, and less disappointment.
Can we share a life with our family without expectations?
Having no expectations is okay in theory, but dealing with the reality of the moment, as it unfolds, is another matter.
We want to feel safe, respected and appreciated. We crave a deeper connection with loved ones and it seems the holidays amplify such wants.
Wants come bearing expectations of one form of happiness or another. I’m not sure if any of us can live completely without wants and expectations.
What we can try to do is learn to be _okay _whether we get what we want or not. In other words, we let go of disappointment.
What would happen if we didn’t care about getting what we want?
Whether we have expectations or not, or whether our expectations are met or not, we will feel okay. That would be a nice feeling to have, especially during the holidays.
Try the following exercise and see how you feel about it.
1. Think of what expectations would make you the happiest. For example a gift you wanted, time alone with a loved one, or simply everyone getting along at the dinner table.
If all of these expectations were met, how would you feel?
Sit with this question for a while and use your imagination to get to that state. What feelings come up? Try to intensify them as much as possible. Feel the sensations in your body. Smile if you feel like it. Do you feel happy?
2. Reverse the situation. Imagine the worst-case scenario. Imagine your worst fears (negative expectations) about the interaction—a feud with a sibling, an inconsiderate gift, or being stuck at an airport. How would that make you feel?
Again use your imagination to conjure up all of the feelings of anxiety, tension, disappointment, pain, humiliation, and so on. Feel the emotional reaction in your body. Also, feel your resistance to the painful emotions. Feel it all.
The best and worst-case scenarios above represent the polarity of expectations. In all likelihood, most of us experience something in between—a little fun and a little misery.
Regardless of what expectations you have, did you notice how you changed your emotional state?
You were the one feeling all the feelings no matter what happened. You imagined the situation and created an emotional response for it.
What if you can create an emotional response that’s not dependent on the situation?
Before you meet with your family, coworkers, or anyone else where you feel apprehensive about the gathering, practice letting go of the two extremes of emotion.
Letting go of resisting misery
Imagine your worst fears, but instead of resisting the habitual emotions, decide ahead of time that you’re going to breathe through the situation, and any pain. Then let it all go.
You may think you can’t imagine that. Give it a try and see what happens. My guess is you’ll experience something like this:
The first time you do it, you will feel intense emotions. But do this exercise a few more times and the emotions will start to subside.
You’re reconditioning a new response to an old pattern. If you have the desire to free yourself from emotional reactivity, repeat as many times as you can and do it on as many occasions as you can.
Letting go of desperately wanting happiness
If you want to kick it up a notch, do the same exercise on your highest of expectations, the ones that would make you the happiest. Instead of just feeling the thrill of getting what you want, breathe into it and calmly let it go.
As much as we want to hold on to the excitement of an experience, it doesn’t usually last very long. And the more we cling on to something, the more miserable we feel as we desperately grasp at the ever so fleeting remnants of what was.
The mental and emotional rehearsal we just did is not something new. We do it all the time when we’re anticipating or dreading—subconsciously mostly. We might as well use it for something useful—consciously and by choice.
We all have a very powerful mind and deeply rooted subconscious beliefs and attitudes. But no matter how strong they are, they won’t stand a chance when the light of awareness shines through.
All of the above exercises are intended to bring the situation to your awareness—the limitless power within that transforms anything and everything.
Feeling okay no matter what doesn’t mean that we numb or suppress our emotions. It’s the exact opposite. We feel what we need to feel at the moment and then decide to let it go without ruining the entire experience.
If you think about how we react most of the time, it’s automatic and reactive. We mindlessly bounce between positive and negative adding to the dysfunction.
When we recondition our emotional response, we can feel good no matter what happens. And that’s not only freedom, but also the path to authentic joy that we can find moment-to-moment and experience-to-experience. Others might also pick up on your lighter mood, making it even better for everyone.
Family remains our closest and smallest tribe. Underneath all the dysfunction and disappointment, lies boundless love. I can’t say that it’s unconditional, because I do feel it is conditioned by biology, shared history, or both. But nonetheless, it is love—the love that sticks around and shows up no matter what, the love that chastises but picks you up when you make mistakes or fall, the love that celebrates and cries with you.
Our families are our greatest teachers. If we learn to master our emotions and manage our expectations with them, we will open up to our friends, community, coworkers, and the world.
To family, love and dysfunction!