Flipping through a cooking magazine recently, I stopped to read an article about chef Nancy Fuller’s Christmastime meals and traditions. Every year, Nancy and her husband host their two dozen or so children and grandchildren in their upstate New York farmhouse, and the family “spends almost every second together,” according to the article—taking sleigh rides, playing hockey in the barn, having slumber parties and a big holiday dinner. “When I look around the table at everyone, it almost makes me cry,” Nancy is quoted as saying.
Part of me scoffs at this picture-perfect image, but another part of me longs for it. Articles like this, TV shows like Parenthood, and movies like Dan in Real Life play on our deeply rooted desires for belonging and for the lifelong security of an interdependent tribe. They’re idealized depictions of loving extended families whose members might not always agree on everything but always find their way back to each other after a conflict, and have each other’s back no matter what. It’s no wonder we’re drawn toward these scenarios, in a time when Americans spend an average of only 18 hours per month—less than an hour a day—with family members.
It’s often around the holidays when we feel the tug of what we’re missing, or imagine we’re missing. In a study of adults estranged from their parents or siblings, 90 percent reported finding the holiday season challenging. And it seems like a natural next step to blame ourselves for the lack of sleigh rides and slumber parties—but we don’t need to go there. Leo Tolstoy’s famous statement that “happy families are alike” was patently wrong; they can look a million different ways.
“My family was just my mom, dad, and me,” says yoga teacher Cyndi Lee, founder of OM Yoga and yoga teacher trainings. “We got along really well, and mostly I remember a lot of laughing. We didn’t make a big deal about ‘family’—we just naturally did a lot of things together because my parents shared their interests with me. The extended family didn’t live near us, so perhaps that’s one reason why we were such a close unit.”
By contrast, Shari Cavalier, my all-time favorite vinyasa teacher, grew up in a close family of six kids and says they all continue to have a deep connection with each other, despite navigating some bumps along the way.
“Now that I am nearing 53, I see our differences much more clearly,” she says. “Back when I was in my 30s, this bothered me a lot. I wanted all of us to believe in the same things, be passionate about the same things, etc. It wasn’t until my mid-40s that I began to accept them for who they are, to understand that I couldn’t change them and they couldn’t change me. There were some pretty big blowups at family gatherings around things like religion, politics, money, raising children. We had to learn to agree to disagree.”
So how do we practice letting go of the fantasy and embracing what’s really in front of us? Here are a few tips for bringing more joy and compassion to our imperfect reality.
Remember, it’s not personal. The psychological imprints of the generations before us inform who our parents are, who we are, and who our siblings are, says Mark Wolynn, director of the Family Constellation Institute and author of It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are And How To End The Cycle. “Each sibling carries a different piece of the family system and is pulled by a different force, even with similar parenting,” Wolynn says. “The wounds of generations prior become part of our unconscious inheritance.” Instead of taking your mother’s nitpicking personally, consider how her mother’s perfectionism affected her. Might your brother’s penchant for advising you on how to handle your finances come from his deep-seated desire for stability ever since your parents’ divorce? Might your sister’s snottiness about your husband be covering up her insecurity about not being in a long-term relationship? Once we understand our family members a little better, we can stop getting triggered and attune to empathy instead.
Practice loving-kindness meditation, also known as “unconditional friendliness.” “This is an incredible practice to call on when you are in the middle of family challenges,” Lee says. “This practice means that you regard everyone as a friend, no matter what. Try to see that person as themselves, with all their fears and joys and sadness and goodness. You see them as they are, warts and all, and you begin to see the truth of reality, which is that we are all connected.” She also recommends practicing “mindfulness meditation on the spot”—noticing and letting go of judgmental thoughts or feelings of annoyance as they arise, through pausing and bringing attention to the breath. “This takes about two seconds, but it can create a gap between stimuli and response and, in that gap, there is a tremendous possibility for you to make positive choices regarding your speech and action,” she says.
Take time alone to rebalance. When she’s with her extended family for more than a day or two, Cavalier stays centered by finding a quiet place in the house to unroll her yoga mat, or taking a meditative run or walk. “I sneak away for an hour or so when things are getting to be too much for me,” she says. “Usually, no one knows where I am and that I practice there. It is my little oasis.” She might practice a mantra—inhaling on “peace” and exhaling on “love,” or inhaling on “let” and exhaling on “go.” One of her favorite pranayama practices for eliciting the relaxation response is simply inhaling for a count of four and exhaling for a count of seven.
Receive what there is to receive. Not everyone is able to express love in an ideal way, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel it. Learning to accept and bask in the love that family members are able to give—rather than what you wish they would give—is a huge step toward healing imperfect relationships. “If your parents are like a faucet whose love only flows at 2 percent, can you put your cup under that faucet and fill it up 100 percent?” Wolynn asks. “If your mom’s only way of loving you is to buy you gifts, take the gifts. If it’s cooking blintzes, enjoy the blintzes.”