On Surviving a Family Christmas, and Cooking Golden Potatoes
The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion wrote that two personalities meeting results in an “emotional storm”. That’s why therapy sessions general last fifty minutes. There needs to be a break to protect both parties from the intensity of the encounter. The time limits allow ongoing and complex work that might otherwise be unbearable. There are of course exceptions. Lacanian analysts may “cut” the session at a key moment, or a significant word, in order to jolt you out of the same old pattern! Other analysts, like Christopher Bollas, have revealed that they sometimes work with patients for intensive periods of one or two days back to back, especially at times when they are breaking down and attempting to build new identities. However, by and large, most therapists stick to the convention of fifty minutes. Furthermore, they go on holiday at what for many people is the most difficult time of the year, Christmas. You might wonder what good a therapist is if they can’t be around when you need them most. So here are some thoughts about how you can survive Christmas without your therapist.
If two people meeting is an “emotional storm”, a whole family meeting over Christmas creates nothing short of an “emotional tornado”. You’re being buffeted by 100 mile an hour gales and there is no escape. Sorry, therapists are on holiday. Except maybe Christopher Bollas, but he lives in America and he’s full booked. Your office is shut. The shops are shuttered. The family doors are sealed and the decorations are up. You could easily get picked up in powerful and unpredictable argumentative blast and end up landing - with a bruising thud - in a unfamiliar or far too familiar psychological territory. Whatever plans you have to be civil and reasonable go out of the window. You regress back into childhood ways. Old wounds are reopened. You have to face the very thing you have spent your whole life trying to get away from. You may wonder why your family is so strange. Are other families like this? All that exposure to each other over the holidays, all that intensity, there is just no relief from “other” people. Your family look like you, and there are similarities, look at the noses, but they are also strangers, “other” than you. They are definitely not like you, you whisper under your breath.
Analyst Michael Eigen says that we all have “psychic taste buds”. As well as tasting your goose and wine, you will inevitably end up tasting each other, psychologically speaking. You may love or hate the taste, or spend hours trying to make sense of the taste, picking out the finer notes, but close proximity with each other means you can’t avoid it. The taste will get into your clothes, skin and bones. Just like odours from the food, the unconscious atmosphere will permeate your mind and body. The closed nature of Christmas family gatherings means that you will be cooking in each other’s juices, like one big stew, even if you try and try and hold onto your own identity.
Jungian theorists believe that the temperature needs to get quite high, and the container needs to be robust, if you are really going to bond as a family. Family members change you in unpredictable ways. The more you can tolerate, the more intense your encounter will be with one another. Watch out for collisions, explosions, and fire. You will be exposed to both the bitter, sweet, and in-between aspects of each other. Siblings, parents, cousins, spouses, friends, children, grandparents, you will be in the mix with them all. You will be confronted with all the things you find difficult to deal with. If you notice yourself getting hot under the collar at the behaviour of a relative, it’s quite possible your relative really is disturbing, an alcoholic murderous brute, but it could equally be you’re encountering a buried, shadowy aspect of yourself. Maybe you need to get a bit more assertive yourself, you limp so and so? In encountering your family you encounter yourself. Families, rather like therapy, can put you in touch with uncomfortable truths. So uncomfortable you may quite rightly want to skip dessert, get some cool air, and get out of the door. Or, follow the example of one of my colleagues, who enjoys his own solitude on Christmas day and in his mind just thinks about each family member one at a time. His rather unusual solution to Christmas seems to work for him.
If, however, you are going to stay in the furnace of family life then maybe Jung has a few ideas to help. In his old age he became very interested in obscure 16th century alchemical texts. These pre-scientific texts relayed how alchemists attempted and failed to turn lead into gold. Many families over Christmas are trying to do the same thing. Modern day alchemists scour the Internet and cook books for the perfect recipe to turn ordinary dull potatoes into a delicious golden creation. Similarly we are all trying to turn our ordinary, complicated familial relationships into something special, even if only for a few minutes. Turning lead into gold is an impossible task, but for Jung, festive and symbolic occasions like Christmas provide an opportunity for us to try our hand. So whack up the oven at 220C, and throw the potatoes into the goose fat, and relish the rich complex flavours that come your way. In January, therapists' phones begin to ring, service will resume as usual, and many of you will be sharing the aftereffects of the family alchemy.