• Spending time with family over Christmas can open old wounds and trigger painful self-beliefs

  • Psychologist Nelisha Wickremasinghe offers tips for a harmonious family Christmas

  • If Christmas is a difficult time for you, you can find support here

For some of us Christmas is the most stressful time of the year partly because we feel obliged to spend time with our extended family. At best, we may feel they have little in common with us and, at worst, they may make us feel inadequate, ashamed, angry or irritable. If you find yourself falling into familiar, but apparently unavoidable patterns when you meet up with them (including repeating old arguments or even acting like a five-year-old), it’s likely that their presence stirs deeply rooted memories in you. 

These so-called ‘implicit memories’ are mostly about how you learned to survive childhood challenges and deal with early anxiety. Implicit memories – which we all have – contain core beliefs about who and what is a threat to us and what we should do to protect ourselves. These beliefs constitute ‘survival data’ and continue to influence our adult choices, decisions and reactions. 

Implicit memories work unconsciously, which means we are often unaware of when and how they are motivating what we feel, think and do. So, you may feel inexplicably angry every time your elderly mother asks for the salt, or furious when your brother and his family arrive a few minutes late. Reactions like these, which are out of proportion to the event, are a good clue that core beliefs are being activated. In this case you may be unconsciously reminded of your mother’s hypercritical parenting or the way your brother controlled and bullied you.

When we get triggered in these ways our threat brain becomes overactive and we start to see problems everywhere. This hypervigilant state is useful if we are in actual, life-threatening danger (think pythons, lions, etc.) but not so useful when we are dealing with the kind of psychological threat posed by Aunty Pam.

When our threat brain is over active we usually resort to one of three learned strategies. These will be familiar in their animal form:

  • Fight – dogs bark and snarl while we start an argument as a way of defending ourselves and deflecting potential attack. 
  • Flee – deer accelerate away while we withdraw into silence or moodiness or seek distraction such as checking our phone or needing to take an urgent call.
  • Freeze – rabbits are transfixed in the headlights while we become compliant or people pleasing which means ‘freezing’ our own needs to placate the perceived predator.

Threat brain feelings are powerful and sometimes it feels psychologically safer to displace them (a form of ‘fleeing’) rather than confront the source of our anger, fear or anxiety. So, for example, when we are triggered by our parent we find ourselves becoming irritated and angry with our partner or child instead. Or we might deny (a form of freezing) our feelings and pretend we are OK – grin and bear it until the mask finally slips.  

One way we deny our feelings is by comparing our situation to others – there is always someone worse off than us. This explains the huge popularity of the Christmas Specials in which our favourite TV soap characters are drawn into explosive family showdowns, making our family conflicts feel normal! Whilst this can be a mindful approach to our problems, if it is the only or main way we deal with our threat brain feelings then it is unlikely to help us feel better in the long run – we will find that the original ‘threats’ keep reappearing.

But there are better ways than fight, flee and freeze to cope with actual and potential conflict and threat brain overload at Christmas. We could, for example, learn a few simple techniques to help us become more skilled at negotiating our family dynamics.

The family therapist, David Kantor, observed hundreds of families in conversation and conflict and developed a theory and method for engaging in more constructive dialogue: The Four Player approach. Kantor says that the hallmark of a healthy conversation is that four types of contribution are occurring and each person in the conversation feels free to take up any one them in order to keep the conversation productive.  These four contributions are:

  • Moving: when a person makes a suggestion, offers an idea or leads the conversation
  • Following: when a person is supportive, understanding and compassionate
  • Opposing: when a person is constructively and respectfully challenging or offers a different perspective
  • Perceiving: when a person offers deeper insight and wisdom

We move, follow, oppose and perceive in all our day-to-day conversations but it is the context that determines how often and how well we make our contributions. This means our behaviour is dependent on the people present and the type of situation we are in – although over time most of us, if we don’t work on it, develop habits of talking that appear in many different contexts and may not always be that effective.

When conversations become unproductive and negative it is usually because we and others have become stuck in a conversational dynamic which is lacking all four contributions (see side bar)

Common problems in unhealthy ‘stuck’ conversations

  • Mixed messages:  When what someone says is different to what they really feel or think
  • Silencing: When someone wants to speak but feels unable to
  • Repetition:  When someone repeats their contribution (such as opposing) again and again, even though the conversation requires something else

3 steps to becoming more skilled at handling family conflict 

Step 1: Reflect on how you deal with conflict in your life

Start to become conscious of times when your reactions to others or to certain situations seem too strong or out of proportion. You may find it easiest to notice this first at work or with friends/colleagues – one may be quick to anger while another may be endlessly trying to ‘get it right’ for other people. Then try to observe your own reactions in the same way.

Talk about your reactions with others and share feedback to discover how others experience you, and how you experience others.

Notice when your threat brain is triggered and practice slow, rhythmic breathing to regulate it.  Don’t attempt to contribute in a conversation when you are in threat!

Step 2: Reflect on typical family conversations and ask yourself

What do I notice about my family and the way we behave and talk together?

What are some of the most common patterns that I see happening in my family?

What is my role in contributing to these patterns?

What do I remember about good family conversations?

How can I do what already works well more?

Step 3: When you are with your family

  • Ask yourself: what does this conversation need from me right now?  If people are locked in a move-oppose dynamic, you could follow or perceive.  Or if people are in a follow-oppose dynamic (which is typically passive aggressive) you could try moving or perceiving.
  • Notice your preferred way of contributing in this family and try something different. If you are always following, why not try a move? Or if you are always opposing why not try to follow?
  • Make it fun and turn the Four Player approach into a dinner party game where everyone has to take a move, follow, oppose and perceive card and try contributing in that style. You can ask people to take a card that represents what they least do!

Remember, while Christmas is a great time to watch family dynamics in action and learn from them, it may not be a good time to try and sort them out because at least one person present is likely to have their threat brain triggered at any time. But if one person in the mix – you – can stay calm when you notice the old family conflicts brewing it is a step towards changing the dynamic from one of tension to tolerance.

Nelisha Wickremasinghe is a psychologist, Associate Fellow at Oxford University and author of Being with Others: Curses, Spells and Scintillation 

Further reading

7 steps to resolve anger in relationships

What is your anger protecting you from?

7 ways to cope with Christmas after a break up

Understanding and managing family dynamics

My family can't see me for who I am