Defence Mechanisms in Play during the Holidays
I love December. It is a great time of year (for me) to take stock, recharge and reboot. It isn’t always that easy. It is so important to remember that not only do we need to be mindful of cultural differences at this time but, for many it is a stressful and difficult time of year. I come from a Christian family and do observe Christmas in a purely non-religious sense as a Buddhist, who is more than happy to give gifts to and spend time with family for that excuse alone. I am all too much aware of how many different families and cultures make up my country alone and while I’ll mention Christmas in this article its message is one that can (I hope) be relevant to any family, with any background.
I’ll begin with a fun fact: Scotland banned Christmas in 1560 (undiscoveredscotland.co.uk) due to the reformation and Christmas wasn’t made a bank holiday until 1958. In fact, undiscovered Scotland says that it was quite normal for people to work on Christmas into the 1960s “if it fell on a week day”. Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) and New Year’s Day, were actually more celebrated in Scotland. I personally am grateful for every excuse for a celebration.
It is not just this time of year that we need to celebrate. It is important to find reasons to take a deep breath and celebrate the little things all through the year. I encourage clients to celebrate each little step, every little victory. It is funny how much brighter life can seem when we start to celebrate each little victory rather than each bump in the road. What is failure other than a bump in the road to success?
Some of my clients are University students and are going home for the holidays after living independently in flats and halls during a very difficult time. We all experience this sensation going to stay at home with family for holidays. Our family see the 15-year-old in us, and we somehow turn into that 15-year-old. Sometimes, old arguments and frustrations come up and we are all too often, even though we love our families, missing that freedom we had left. How do we approach those relationships, how do we maintain that independence and present the adult self to our families rather than regressing to the teenager in us?
I was watching Christmas films the other day, and was about half way through ‘The family stone’ when I thought a little more about those going home for Christmas. I considered how this film might be a great example of this regression. There is the girl who has not long completed University, having to get used to the new faces at Christmas and, perhaps being more 15, than her 24 years. The rest of the family fall into these patterns too, treating new girlfriends who don’t meet expectations or fully grasp the family traditions as social pariahs driving them to hilarious consequences. The film obviously comes to a satisfactory conclusion but often in real life these situations are stressful, no one involved is truly acting the way they would like to and that’s not just because of the regression but because we find ourselves in new situations meeting new people or having to come to terms with changes in the people we have known for years and it can be hard to see your twenty-year-old son (as an example) as anything other than the boy he once was. It can also be hard to accept newcomers to the family fold when on some subconscious level we assign some blame for them placing a barrier in between you and your loved one.
The film obviously comes to a satisfactory conclusion but often in real life these situations are stressful, no one involved is truly acting the way they would like to and that’s not just because of the regression but because we find ourselves in new situations meeting new people or having to come to terms with changes in the people we have known for years and it can be hard to see your twenty-year-old son (as an example) as anything other than the boy he once was. It can also be hard to accept newcomers to the family fold when on some subconscious level we assign some blame for them placing a barrier in between you and your loved one.
There can be a lot more at play and it is never as simple as the paragraph above, especially when family history and the events of our lives come into play. I can say that in psychotherapy a huge part of my role is to be a listening post and a clear communicator for my client. It is not that much different in a family role. I am reminded a little of Transactional Analysis (emotionalinteligenceatwork.com) when I talk about communication. Simply put, we are often drawn into roles; we can be the parent, the child, the adult in any relationship and within that many other roles. The key is to bring ourselves up (or down) to meet on an adult level. Consider how you speak to your loved ones; do you find yourself reverting to that 15-year-old self? Or do you treat your now adult child like they are that 15-year-old? Would simple arguments be better faced if discussed on an adult-to-adult level? I think about this a lot even in my own life, could I have handled that situation better if the person I was speaking to, and myself had been able to communicate better, rather than regressing or putting up barriers in the way of avoidance or projection.
These mechanisms Projection/ Avoidance/ Regression are classic traits identified by Freud (healthline.com) in his analysis of human behaviours. They are called defence mechanisms for a reason; they are our subconsciousness way of protecting our mind. Defence mechanisms can be a powerful (and often necessary) coping mechanism, but sometimes they can be destructive. We let them become a barrier between our self and the outside world and the best way to overcome that is to acknowledge the defence mechanism, understand why we are using it and explore how we can move forward without it. Often that’s where psychotherapy comes in.
I have one piece of advice this Christmas, whether you are able to see your family or if you are meeting on Zoom; think about how you communicate, consider how you can bring your interactions to an adult-to-adult level, keep an eye out for those defence mechanisms and think about why you are adopting them. Most importantly acknowledge when you need to look after yourself. Some people don’t cope as well in larger family gatherings and it’s OK to need to take a break and/or rest.
Whatever your cultural/ religious/ personal leanings, I hope that you have some time at this time of year to take a step back, and a deep breath. I hope you have a moment to recharge as we look with hope to 2021.
Film – ‘The Family Stone’ - 2005
https://www.emotionalintelligenceatwork.com/resources/parent-adult-child-model-basics/ (Accessed - 13/12/2020)
https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/defense-mechanisms#defense-mechanisms (Accessed – 13/12/2020)