One of my favorite Christmas cards was given to me by a client. On the front of the card, there is a photo of a beautiful snow-covered farm scene. The farm house is beautifully decorated for Christmas. The caption at the top says, “I’ll be home for Christmas.” When you open the card, the words read, “And in therapy for the next year.”
The card is funny, but expresses an unfortunate truth. I talk to so many people who grew up in dysfunctional families. They recall a parent’s substance abuse, an abandoning or critical parent, or constant drama and infighting through childhood. Like all children, they carried this overriding hope that the parents would change and they would at last feel the love they had longed for. Like all children, those family experiences created self-esteem wounds, where they believed that they were at fault. They mistakenly believed that they were defective, unlovable or inadequate.
Many of those children carry this hope of family change into adulthood. As adults, they still long for that negative, critical parent to finally be proud of them. They hope to see expressions of love, or attention from that distant or abandoning parent. Their hope is fueled by the mistaken belief that their worth is measured by the parent’s behaviors toward them. They believe that loving or accepting behaviors from the parent will mean that the defective child has finally grown into a competent and lovable adult.
Now, here’s where the Christmas card comes in. These people carry the hope that this time or this visit, things will be different. They hope that this Christmas, they will see the change. They may not be conscious of this hope. They may consciously realize that the negative parent won’t change until they decide to change. But, subconsciously they carry hope.
The person who returns home for a visit, carrying this unrealistic hope, is primed for disappointment. When the family member once again behaves critically, is rejecting, or gets drunk, that hope is shattered. The result can be anger, depression, or a deepening of an old self-esteem wound.
Of course, the truth is that the parent’s critical or rejecting behaviors reflect a problem with the parent, not an inadequacy in the child. And, the parent won’t change until he or she realizes the problem and has a desire to change.
The holidays can be a very special time of year. Enjoy the good parts. Establish your own traditions, but remember that people basically act like themselves. Try to be realistic about your expectations when you make that Christmas visit. It might save you some of the cost of therapy.