If you dread the Holidays because it means spending time with your family, then I have some encouraging news for you: Family gatherings feel stressful because something invisible, but predictable, is occurring. If you had X-Ray goggles and could see what was actually happening, you would probably be shocked!

I think that it’s reasonable to expect newborn babies to be accepted and loved, UNCONDITIONALLY, by their parents and their family. Nothing could be further from reality!

My parents, for example, knew exactly  which of my behaviours, emotions and traits to encourage and which (e.g. stealing, covetousness, adultery, and murder) would result in their being ostracised, socially excluded, rejected, alienated or isolated by their community, by their friends and by their families.

They, like most other parent, could accept everything that I thought, said, did and felt AS LONG AS it didn’t result in SOCIAL REJECTION.

But here’s the irony: They CONDITIONED me to behave and to be the way they wanted by (unconsciously) DISCONNECTING FROM ME whenever I expressed one of the things that they were discouraging. I’ve never known anything but CONDITIONAL acceptance and love.

The more I did things that were encouraged, the MORE LOVE I felt; and the more I did what was discouraged, the LESS I felt accepted or loved. My experience was not unusual.

As adults, we often find it difficult to grasp the full implications of this dichotomy, but from the perspective of an infant, who absolutely depends on adults for food and shelter and emotional comfort, even the teeniest withdrawal of parental acceptance and love is terrifying.

If you were to divide the following list of emotions and character traits into two, based on whether they were encouraged or discouraged by your parents, then it would quickly become apparent how profound an impact CONDITIONAL acceptance and love have played in your life:

Helpless, Sad, Happy, Strong, Irritable, Anxious, Impatient, Shy, Awkward,  Self-conscious, Sympathetic, Interested, Grateful, Cheerful, Curious, Fascinated, Playful, Energetic, Brave, Calm, Responsible, Sane Absentminded, Aggressive, Arrogant, Caring, Clean, Clever, Clumsy, Complacent, Confident, Conformist, Cowardly, Creative, Crude, Cruel, Deceitful …

To understand what happens at the family gatherings that we dread, insert the labels ‘Safe’ and ‘Unsafe’ instead of “Encouraged’ and ‘Discouraged’ because every time that we encounter an emotion, a trait, a behaviour or a belief that was STRONGLY DISCOURAGED and that is ‘UNSAFE’, our nervous system reacts with a stress response that is AS INTENSE as our response to a venomous snake or a truck that is dangerously hurtling toward us. We fight or we flee.

When you’re seated at the dinner table and all hell is breaking loose, be aware that the reactivity around you has NOTHING to do WITH you. The relative who reacts to your clumsiness, laziness or your complacency, for example, most likely grew up in an environment where these traits were discouraged because, at some point in the family’s history, clumsiness, laziness or complacency had resulted in someone becoming ostracised, socially excluded, rejected, alienated or isolated.

The upset, or withdrawal that you’re experiencing in 2016 are probably vestigial (trans-generational) expressions of the fight or a flight response that was originally intended to restore inner safety, and it has nothing to do with you. (When a person is in fight or flight, they temporarily lose their ability to reason, so sharing these insights with your family during a conflict can have an incendiary effect).

I don’t expect anyone reading this to integrate these insights instantly. Integration generally takes at least a year even with ongoing mentoring support. You might, however, find it helpful to print this out, keeping it handy at the next family event so that it’s accessible as a reference whenever your family dynamics become too heated or too chilled.

I’m curious to hear your experiences applying these insights, so please feel free to send an email to Philip[who is at]b-loops.com describing your most noteworthy applications of this wisdom. I can’t commit to responding to every e-mail, but I do commit to reading every one.

Wishing you a wonderful holiday season,

Philip Be’er