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Angry Relatives? Or Wounded Souls…

As we again approach the holidays, many people naturally become nostalgic for what are often fondly remembered as the simpler, happier days of the past.  And it’s often true (excepting, of course, situations of frank abuse or neglect).  Reflecting on childhood years can bring back memories of joyful times and excited anticipation, when the myth of Santa was wonderfully too real.  With adulthood and responsibility, however, come natural stressors: limitations of time and of funds, and in far too many cases, familial estrangements and conflicts.

While these are not surprising given the fallen nature with which we all struggle, they take on an added force when traditional “family time” rolls around.  Their arrival is as predictable as the falling of autumn leaves and the winter nip which fills the air thereafter—at least for those fortunate enough to live in the higher latitudes.  Our apologies to the San Diegans amongst our readership.

What to Make Of All Those Pesky Emotions?

A recent popular film, Inside Out [1], gets some of all of this right.  In a humorous way, it portrays what some would define as the four primary emotions [2]: Sadness, Anger, Joy and Fear.  (The film also adds Disgust to the list.  Other theories would also add Surprise, Excitement, Loneliness, Gratitude or Humility.)  The film attempts to portray what occurs on a subconscious level as people sort through the varying pushes and pulls of the passions.

While mixed emotions are a natural occurrence, what is important to understand according to prominent theories of emotion is that despite the truism that “feelings are not right or wrong, they just are,” there is actually an anthropology to the understanding and ordering of emotions [3] that provides for psychological health and flourishing:

Other emotions are considered to be subsets or combinations [4] of these four core emotions.  The key concept for our discussion here, however, is that people often manifest and feel an emotion that is not ordered according to the above anthropology.  For example, rather than feeling sadness at a loss, they feel anger; rather than feeling anger at an injustice, they feel sad; rather than feeling joyful about success, they feel fear.  Such responses are maladaptive.

Experiencing the emotions in the ordered manner delineated above, while at times excruciating and difficult, is nonetheless congruent and therefore healthy.  In time, the negative emotions can likely be resolved.  However, the emotions that are disordered, no matter how strongly or often expressed, are never able to be resolved; they simply continue to arise time and time again, frustrating the person experiencing them, and often harming relationships with others.

What You See Is Not What You Get

Most families are touched by some of the confusion over the dynamics of ordered and disordered emotions, emotions which can show up with a vengeance around the Thanksgiving dinner table or at the Christmas Eve gathering.   For many, there is a sense of helplessness or déjà vu, as difficulties are replayed year after year.  Yet, much might be gained by considering with compassion and empathy that what the troubled uncle or annoying sister is experiencing just might be an awakening or revisiting of some old wounds that have never quite healed.  The seemingly-rude and angry alcoholic uncle might just be experiencing the loss of his hopes for success or nostalgic pining for the love he had once known.  The anxious, intrusive sister might just be unsure how to confront her emotionally-abusive husband or critical mother.  The detached sibling might be avoiding the obvious demise of their beloved mother who is moving quickly through the stages of dementia.

Realistic Expectations, Realistic Hope

It is commonly held these days that you can’t change other people, and this is true, as far as it goes.  Yet, precisely because we are social beings, anything we do differently provides an opportunity for a different response, and therein lies Hope.  Expectations must be modest, and oftentimes the change that occurs happens solely within the person taking the more charitable, compassionate stance.  It is not they who change, but we.  They yearn for more, and we yearn for them.   We know the wounded family member really will only heal through love, so we take the risk and make the effort.  We provide an opportunity to reconnect and to reorder; we share a smile, and, perhaps, we allow them to move one step forward.