Family Gatherings

  • Blog
  • 30/12/2015

Hopefully I can continue to loosen up in the build-up to hosting a family gathering so that anyone can move the mustards and it will be just fine with me.

How did your family manage Christmas and holiday menu decisions? What were the issues that incited reactions from you and other family members? Could you notice who was most sensitive to the tension? Who were the peace makers? The distancers? The amplifiers? So often the issues that trigger reactions are insignificant but the extra intensity of the family gathering sets the scene for emotions to run a notch higher than usual. For myself I observed my emotions hitching a ride on the most petty of issues- the placement of the condiments?  Looking back it’s quite humorous to recall my reaction to a difference of opinion about whether the sauces should be with the buffet or on the dining table. Such a moment provided me with a humbling opportunity to practice managing my emotions more maturely.

Our emotions are hugely influential. I’m not referring so much to the secondary conscious emotions of happiness, anger or positive affection but rather to the primary emotions embedded in our lower central brain’s limbic system.  Like an iceberg, the primary emotions that drive levels of stress and fear (as well as being linked to essential biological systems such as digestion) operate beneath the surface of awareness and make up more of human experience and behaviours than we care to think. I have come to see that there is much value in an awareness of these primary emotions and the way they influence relationship patterns. At this Christmas holiday time, with extra demands on time, energy and extended family relationship interactions, I’ve been endeavouring to better observe these below the surface forces within my physiology.  Add a bit of stress to my life – even positive stress- and my primary emotions become more accessible to my intellect.

On the surface I thrive during the events of Christmas and holiday gatherings. I enjoy the planning and preparation, the opportunities for connecting over favourite food and champagne with uplifting music adding to the atmosphere. Plus there are the spontaneous back yard games that unite the generations as both players and spectators. While there’s much pleasure to be had there is also extra responsibility and tasks at this time. I’ve had my in-laws staying for the week and been host, with my husband, to some of the Christmas gatherings. With the extra load comes just that extra degree of intensity from my limbic system. I know that with a heightened level of work load and occasion anticipation, my heart rate can be a bit higher and my general body tension a bit tighter. For me this played out in being a bit too focussed on event management and being in control. The control thing is a learned way to absorb the extra tension but even in it’s more subtle forms it can be unhelpful in relationships. It can exclude others from contributing and inject a bossy tone to exchanges.

So what have I observed over the holiday week? Two key examples stand out for me as good lessons in awareness and making adjustments. The first was a conversation I had with my husband about catering for Christmas day. I asked him what ideas he had and as I listened to his particular views on preferred menu I found myself countering his ideas. What was going on here? I genuinely wanted to get his ideas but at my emotional level I reacted to what was contrary to my own thoughts. Thankfully he gently called me on this. He smiled at me and said isn’t it funny the way we get into this trivial debating at such times. Initially my emotional response was to justify my viewpoint but as I stepped back I could see that I was moving into unhelpfully taking charge. I was also contradicting myself. What I was asking for input about was discredited by the way I was responding. My effort went into calming down and loosening up. Then I was able to utilise my husband’s suggestions as a resource.

My second example I mentioned earlier definitely wins the prize in terms of triviality. As lunch was about to be served buffet style on Christmas day I noticed that my sister in-law took it upon herself to move the condiments from the buffet to the dining table. I smile as I now reflect on how silly this now seems but, in the moment, my agitation spiked in response to another deciding on one small matter about the best way to serve the food.  I gathered myself and took charge of my uncalled for emotional response that would have been clearly evident in my facial expression and the tone of my voice when I asked “where have the condiments gone?” Then I looked at my sister in law as she answered and smiled saying “I really do need to learn to be more flexible at this moment.” The condiments stayed on the dining table and of course worked just fine for everyone.

It was interesting to me to recognise that if the level of task responsibility is high my emotional response is to be less collaborative and more directive. This example shows how primary stress emotions can highjack quite unimportant issues.  Placements of mustard and cranberry sauce for heaven’s sake! I appreciate that small reactions about unimportant issues can lead to accumulations of emotionality.  This can certainly pollute the air of any gathering as others emotional sensitivities also come into play. Every emotionally driven reaction adds to a moment of tension acceleration that spreads through a relationship system.

It’s never easy to tone down emotional responses at times of high demand on our resources.  At any large family gathering resources for tasks and relationships are bound to be a bit more strained. Anxious behavioural reactions ride on the back of chemical charges out of our limbic brains that happen without a conscious choice. While our particular responses happen instinctively they do reveal useful aspects of ourselves such as our patterned ways of functioning in relationships and unhelpful (or indeed wrong) motivations.

I received a Fit Bit watch as a Christmas present and have already found it fascinating to track my heart rate. When sitting in a movie theatre with a family group on Boxing Day I could see that my heart rate was well above my resting rate. With this biofeedback awareness I was able to slow down my breathing and relax my muscles and watch to see lower levels achieved quickly as I tracked it on my watch. Such awareness of the subtle levels of elevated emotions allowed me to steady myself and enjoy the movie and the company so much more. Monitoring such signs of elevated emotions does not require a Fit Bit but just a bit of body awareness. A little more effort can be directed at slowing down our activity, our heart rate and our breathing.  With the emotional intensity toned down we can commit to observing ourselves in reaction to others and working at doing a notch better.

For most people our ‘beneath the surface’ responses go unnoticed or underestimated. It’s easier to perceive the annoying reactions of others than to pay attention to the way we inject our emotional intensity into the mix. Through all of life, learning to better regulate our primary emotions is a path to improved functioning, for both us and our important others. Hopefully I can continue to loosen up in the build-up to hosting a family gathering so that anyone can move the mustards and it will be just fine with me.

Questions for reflection:

  • When intensity is higher in life what can I observe about my emotionality?
  • What are others up against when I’m more stressed?
  • Which patterns are predictable when I’m in the midst of gatherings of important others? Withdrawal; overly taking charge; getting too busy; becoming critical and moody; avoiding people; drinking too much; becoming preachy; becoming overly needy; gossiping about others……..?
  • What can I make an effort to observe of my reactive behaviours? How can I become more responsible in monitoring my primary emotions and their affects?

Relevant Bowen Quotes

The theory postulates that far more human activity is governed by man’s emotional system than he has been willing to admit, and there is far more similarity than dissimilarity between the dance of life in lower forms (species) and the dance of life in human forms.  P305

It is possible for the human to discriminate between emotions and the intellect and to solely gain more conscious control of emotional functioning. The biofeedback phenomenon is an example of conscious control over automatic functioning. P305

In poorly functioning people the two centres {of the brain} are intimately fused, with the emotional centre having almost total dominance over the intellectual centre…..The more the separateness between the centres, the more the intellectual centre is able to block or screen out, a spectrum of stimuli from the emotional centre and to function autonomously. P372

In periods of calm, when the emotional centre is receiving fewer stimuli from its sensing network, the intellectual centre is more free to function autonomously. When the emotional centre is flooded by stimuli, there is little intellectual functioning that is not governed by the emotional centre. P 372

Becoming a better observer and controlling one’s own emotional reactiveness. These two assignments are so interlinked…The effort to become a better observer and to learn more about the family reduces the emotional reactivity, and this in turn helps one to become a better observer…One never becomes completely objective and no one ever gets the process to the point of not reacting emotionally to family situations. P 541

Family Gatherings

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