“This time of year is difficult.”
So says the Vienna pharaoh of the holidays. Our shoulders slump when we hear this from a licensed marriage and family therapist. Along with joy and love, the holidays can bring tension and fighting spirit when gathering with family. That’s why Pharaon, who focuses on helping people heal unresolved family trauma, believes it’s helpful to “have some tangible things going into that space.”
Here, in her remarkably empathetic way, she shows us how to find peace, calm, and even a sense of well-being in complex family dynamics.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE PHARAOH OF VIENNA, LFMT
Vienna, the holidays are here and with them come many feelings. As a clinician, what do you see about people’s feelings around family dynamics this time of year?
There is always frenzied energy, anticipation, shame, guilt, and infinity. All those things are there. Some say it’s their favorite time of the year, while others say it’s their least favorite time of the year. For some, going home is nice, but for others, going home is where there is abuse, criticism, or infinity. Here are also reminders of the unresolved. Family dynamics are the gift that keeps on giving.
I hear a lot of people say that they feel like they’re mature, mature, wise adults, and when they walk through that door, they’re 13 again. They come in mentally and emotionally prepared, and then just one look, one comment sets them on their way.
Why does this happen?
The reason we get off track so easily is because we have so much indecision. This is what my book is about. unresolved pain in our family systems and how it is activated in our adult lives. And when we return to the source of our pain, in these moments we are reminded that they can not recognize things or did not have has changed. Maybe dad still drinks as much, or mom still makes that comment about my body. Whatever it is, we re-enter this space where we see the same things as always. So there is a real stress that happens to the system.
In therapy, I often ask: “How are you feeling right now?” when someone is feeling reactive or proactive. Often we can feel like a teenager ready to fight or a seven year old who has no voice. When we re-enter these systems where there is still uncertainty, it is easy to revert to these young and immature states and fall back into the pattern or role we once had as a child.
How can we begin to prevent this from happening?
A lot of it is preparation, selection and observation; How can I succeed here? So instead of going home for three nights and staying in your childhood home, maybe you can take a day trip or get an Airbnb or hotel. It’s about choosing something that gives you some space. It’s about succeeding.
I always remind people, and I mean that very lovingly, to stop being surprised by the unexpected. For example, we can be like, wait, this person who has always this is how it’s done, this is how it’s done again? No way! We need to stop being surprised by what we know about people. This is hard to do in family systems because we want to hope that maybe they will be different, maybe something will change, maybe this time… We will constantly negotiate and bargain with ourselves to let hope in. Hope is a beautiful thing. We know that hope saves us at times, sure. But sometimes hope makes us cling to our suffering;
If I keep hoping you’ll be different than I know you will be…
If I keep hoping you’ll know me when I know you can’t…
If I keep hoping you’ll show up differently, when you don’t…
That is when we continue to drag ourselves into pain and suffering. So, I have to confess. Can you accept who you are? to know to be true for you hope be truthful before entering into a family dinner or visit. Can you learn how to be in a relationship, where and who they are? Most of us have this fantasy of what our family will look like or what that parent will look like, and we cling to this fantasy. That clinging is a defense that distracts us from truly accepting who they are, their abilities, and where their limitations lie.
What if those restrictions are too many? Suppose Uncle Bob is too mean, or Cousin Phil never listens.
For some people, of course, that means they’re going to be ostracized, or they’re going to be cut off. Undoubtedly, there are times when it is appropriate not to have someone in your life. But I find most of the time that most people don’t want that. Most people I talk to wish find a way to relate to their family. We want to find a way. But when we can’t accept who they are and how they appear, that’s when we get caught up in a dance or a power struggle. In some ways, we choose not to be left out of the dance. There is this part that will fight them by becoming horned in the patterns we have. But liberation happens when we say: “I’ll stop looking for you to do that.” When we accept the grief, sadness, and pain that they weren’t the person, person, parent, or adult that we would like them to be, and when we allow that to happen and relate to them based on their ability, what happens? having
Think: What happens when I walk in knowing exactly who you are and exactly what you are capable of? How can I feel differently about this dinner or these few days?
The nature of the choice seems critical here. Will you delve further into the idea of choice?
Most of our trauma or pain comes from our lack of choice. And so our healing requires choice, because as children and teenagers, when something is traumatic or hurtful, it’s because there was an environment where you didn’t have a choice. So when you go through this, and when I say “this,” I mean your healing, doing things differently in family relationships, choices have to be a part of it. And really, it’s as simple as going away for three days or one day, staying with your family or at a hotel, or getting up from your desk and going for a walk. It’s recognizing where your choice is.
Some may say. “I have no choice because my mother would be so hurt if I didn’t stay for a week.” There is guilt, shame, criticism, and many things that families can do to pressure us, even as adults, to do things we don’t want to do. Sometimes people may choose to stay three days because it is more tolerable than the guilt, fighting, or shame that might come from not staying. People should see what is more bearable for them. But again, it’s about bringing your awareness to where your choices are, and then finding choices within choices to give yourself a sense of grounding.
What tools can help find that foundation with family during these stressful times?
There are things that are very important in this environment to feel like a witness. For example, if you go [to the dinner or visit], Do you have a partner or friend with you? Do you have a friend on speed dial that you can pull aside and call and get to know each other? This may be someone who can relate to what you are going through. It’s important to feel heard and understood and to have a teammate.
I also love the voice memo that you can listen to. You are pre-recording this memo from your wise, mature adult self. As I said, sometimes, in this dynamic, we are no longer wise, mature adults. Suddenly one comment and we’re back to a war-ready teenager. When this happens, we can hear our voice note.
Here is an example of a voice note to record:
“Okay, isn’t it?” It happened again. You must be really excited and probably want to go to battle with dad. You want to prove to him why what he said is wrong. And I hear you. But we’re not going to associate with someone who has to win and has to be right. It’s a path that takes you further away from yourself. So I see you, I hear you, I respect you and I know you. Now let’s walk.
You can record some version of this, so when you press play, you can hear your wise, mature adult self accepting what you already knew was going to happen. I love voice memos because there is something about listening to us in a regulated, quiet moment.
Finally, what’s your advice for dealing with tense moments, like when someone makes an offensive comment at the dinner table?
This is difficult for many because there is a desire to speak your truth and defend something you don’t agree with or don’t like to hear. There are political, religious, and social issues that people do disagree on, and we know that family systems do have differences. When people say something so offensive or so far from being true to you, I think it’s a question of whether or not you engage. Sometimes we may think we are silent or complicit if we don’t engage. I believe there is more nuance to this because fighting someone when it’s not going anywhere is not worth it. And I don’t know if that’s valuable to you.
So in these moments with the family, where people are committed to their views and perspectives and are not open to dialogue here, it’s about thinking: Will my choice lead me to more suffering or peace? I’m swaying towards disengagement. It doesn’t mean you agree with what they say. But you can get up from the table and admit what you believe to yourself, a friend, or a partner. Again, I’m leaning towards non-involvement here, as it leads nowhere in these situations. It only creates more anxiety, disconnection, conflict, and terrible feelings.
Vienna Pharaon is a licensed marriage and family therapist and national bestselling author. Your origin. how breaking family patterns can liberate the way we live and love. Pharaon also hosts the new podcast This is ongoingLearn more at viennapharaon.com and follow Vienna at @mindfulmft.
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