Have you ever looked in the mirror and wondered who the person staring back is? The feeling of not knowing who you really are as a person separate from the roles that you find yourself cast in. How often do we define ourselves generically by descriptors of those roles rather than by our character traits? A mother, a wife, a father, a son, a daughter, a coworker, etc. These terms describe our relationships, but there is more to us than simply who we are to other people. Is that really how we want to be seen by those around us? Flat, non-dimensional characters in the play called life? Where we are content taking a supporting cast role rather than starring in our own lives? Sadly, often that is exactly what happens for many of us. We become so busy that we forget to truly live and are left wondering where the time went and who we are.
Recently, my just-graduated from college daughter was having an “existential” crisis in our kitchen. Like so many of us, she’s struggling with how to identify herself. She’s technically no longer a student, though graduate school applications are in process, and she isn’t yet working in her field of study. She has described as “feeling adrift.” There is no longer a label that she can slap on to describe herself succinctly that feels adequate. What’s a 22-year-old to do? Or a 32-year-old? Or a 50-year-old? Or a 103-year-old? See, this isn’t a question of age or experience, but a question of perspective. How do we see ourselves? How do we want to be seen? How do others perceive us? Do all these different perspectives align?
I’ve noticed when I pose these questions that people (clients, friends, family) are often taken aback when they contemplate their answers. Often, they find that how their loved ones, coworkers, or acquaintances would describe them is similar to how they would like to be perceived but, not surprisingly, their self -perception is much more negative. Why is that? Why are we so quick to look outward for a measure of worthiness but so harshly judge ourselves, and our contributions, as inadequate? I wonder what would happen if, as a society, we spoke more kindly to ourselves and left self-recrimination out of our personal narratives? Would we be happier? Less anxious? Less depressed?
Positivity, gratefulness, and mindfulness are all ways that we can choose to treat ourselves with more care. These practices can help ground us and keep us focused on the good in our lives and ourselves to help us better weather the storms that life hurls our way. So, take a minute, look in the mirror, and tell the stranger you see there all the things that you want, hope, and desire for them. Treat that stranger as you would your best friend, coworker, sibling, or child that needs a little boost. Encourage that stranger to find their inner passion and foster it. Tell that stranger how much they are loved, and one day, you just might believe it.
Over the past several months, I’ve noticed that in LDS circles, we often use the term “role” in reference to gender. From official talks over the pulpit, to blog posts, to casual conversations, it seems we’re always hearing about “gender roles”: role of men and women, role of mothers and fathers. The more I’ve noticed its use, the more uneasy I feel when I hear the word “role. ”
Maybe it’s because it seems to be used more frequently in conjunction with women’s roles so it seems odd or out of balance. After a quick search of LDS.org for “role of women” (8 pages of results) and “role of men” (1 page of results) I realized that it wasn’t just my imagination. We are hearing a lot more about women’s roles than men’s roles. Hmmmm. Interestingly, “role of men” was only used in the phrase “the role of men and women.” Maybe that’s why I feel uneasy. But I knew there was more to it. So I’ve continued to pondered.
“Boundaries can be understood as processes of contact and exchange,
moments of knowing, and movement, and growth.” Judith V. Jordan
Knowing how to set healthy boundaries is an important part of living a life where you feel honest with yourself because you are able to interact honestly with others. This isn’t a skill that comes with all of us into life. This isn’t a skill we learn in our formative years either.
We learn it, oftentimes, through experiences of pain and trauma, both emotional and physical. Because of our experiences, we learn to have boundaries. Because of our experiences, we also gain the tough challenge of doing 3 life-altering things:
Learning to value ourselves;
Actively creating our identity;
Balancing the ways we share our personal space.
Often times we are expected to share our personal space without regard to personal needs because of our roles in life – such as our families, our friends, our occupations or hobbies, our roles as as parents, siblings, spouses, or relatives.
My own personal experience coupled with my professional experience working with families for nearly 20 years, I’ve learned a few helpful strategies for navigating those occasional stressful situations that come whenever families gather.
It’s not your job to make everyone happy
Even though ideal holiday celebrations are associated with happiness, remember that it’s not your job to make everyone happy. Someone will inevitably be disappointed because they didn’t get a gift they were hoping for or because you spent more time with your partner’s family than with them. I worked with a woman in my clinical practice who worked so hard to make sure that everyone was delighted with the holiday gifts and family celebrations that she ended up exacerbating her existing physical health problems and had to spend most of the holiday in bed. We worked together to help her let others have the “privilege” of learning how to deal with disappointment and upset.
Start a different tradition
One of the beauties of being an adult is that you get to choose what you want to do. Family traditions are meant to promote family bonding, not family “bondage.” If you are feeling like you don’t have a choice in how you celebrate the holidays, it may be time to start a tradition of your own and opt out of another tradition.
It’s particularly difficult when there are strong extended family ties to break away and start your own traditions. I know of a family who decided to try leaving town to spend Christmas with an extended family member in another state. This helped establish them as “grown-ups” and sent a clear message that they are going to select which extended family traditions they will participate in.
Act like a grownup, even when you don’t feel like one
Have you ever noticed how family gatherings have a tendency to bring out old patterns and roles? A 50-year-old man can magically transform back into that older teenage brother who used to tease you mercilessly. Or that little sister can shift from a respected adult into a spoiled little girl. If old family patterns resurface, leaving you feeling like (or acting like) a child, remind yourself that you can choose not to revert back to playing your childhood role.
I worked with a man who had taken on the role of “the responsible child” early on in his life. He grew up worrying about finances and caring for younger siblings needs. As an adult, his family continued to look to him to host and foot the bill for parties, gifts, and travel expenses for family gatherings. We worked together to help him step out of his childhood role by allowing his family of origin (now all adults) to make their own travel arrangements, participate in planning and bring food to family gatherings.
Assume that others have good intentions
Even if you are well prepared to handle family drama; it may sneak up on you without warning. An offhanded comment about your parenting skills (or lack thereof) or a sister-in-law forgetting to buy a gift for your family may catch you off guard.
To fend off potential drama, I’ve found it helpful to make up a story in my mind that makes another person’s potentially hurtful behavior make sense. Thinking, “Oh, I know she’s had a difficult time caring for a sick mom” helps me to not take offense and get sucked into family drama. Assuming others’ missteps are underscored by good intentions will help you have a happier holiday.
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