Creating Your Right Life

inspiration & tools for empowered living

1129
2011

Putting the “Fun” in Dysfunctional: Saving Your Sanity This Holiday Season

[Hello, Team! This is a reprint of my article from the December 2002 issue of O Magazine, where I first introduced "Dysfunctional Family Bingo", a staple for surviving any family event. My team put together a bingo card for you and your favorite people to play along. Enjoy and good luck out there!]

In the Uncle Remus story of the tar baby, Brer Rabbit picks a fight with a lifelike doll made out of tar and turpentine. The tar baby is so gluey that when the rabbit punches it, his fists get hopelessly stuck. He tries to kick his way free, trapping his feet, then finishes off with an infuriated head butt that renders him utterly helpless.

I can’t think of a more fitting metaphor for family life in the 21st century. There’s nothing in the world as sticky as a dysfunctional family. You can put half your life’s savings into therapy—good therapy, effective therapy—and, 15 minutes into a holiday reunion, you still become hopelessly enmeshed in the same old crazy dynamics. Your assertiveness training goes out the window the minute your brother begins his traditional temper tantrum. A mere sigh from your grandmother triggers an attack of codependency so severe you end up giving her your house. For many people, family get-togethers require strategies for staying out of such sticky situations. Before you head over the river and through the woods, give some thought to the following suggestions.

Strategy #1: Give Up Hope

Most of us go home for the holidays thinking (along with comedienne Abby Sher), God, grant me the ability to change the things I cannot accept. Even if we don’t consciously realize it, we want our families to cease and desist from all the things that affect us like fingernails on a chalkboard. We don’t ask much—just socially appropriate behavior, dammit, and minimal reparations for the more damaging incidents in our past. Although come to think of it, things would certainly go better if our relatives would listen openly, communicate honestly, and agree with us on all significant issues. And possibly offer money.

The hope that our families will act perfectly—or even reasonably well—sets us up to whack the tar baby, to be incapacitated by the dysfunctions we’ll almost certainly encounter. Before you meet your relatives this season, take a few moments to sit quietly and acknowledge what you wish they were like. Then prepare to accept them even if they behave as they have always done in the past. At best you may be surprised to find that they actually are changing, that some of your wishes have come true. At worst you’ll feel regrettably detached from your kinfolk as you watch them play out their usual psychoses.

Strategy #2: Set Secure Boundaries

Given that your family members will probably go on being their same old selves, you need to decide how much contact with them you really want. Are there certain relatives you simply can’t tolerate? Are there others you can handle in group settings but not one-on-one? How much time and intimacy with your family is enough? How much is too much?

It’s crucial to answer these questions before, not during, a family gathering. Prior to the event, think through various boundary options until you come up with a scenario that makes you feel comfortable. Would you be more enthusiastic about a get-together if you planned to leave after no more than four hours? Or three? Two? One? Would you breathe easier if you rented a car so that you could get away without relying on relatives for transportation? Would it help to have a friend call you on your cell phone halfway through the evening, providing an excuse for a graceful exit?

Strategy #3: Lose Control

You’re in the middle of a holiday feast, enjoying your favorite pie and eggnog, when your mother leans over and whispers, “Honey, have you tried Weight Watchers?” Those six words may wither your very soul, challenging every ounce of self-acceptance you’ve gleaned from myriad self-help books, support groups, and several enlightened friends. You might feel desperate to make Mom recognize all the hard-won truths you’ve learned about the intrinsic value and beauty of your body. You’ll want to argue, to explain, to get right in there and force your mother to approve of your appearance. You are coming perilously close to whacking the tar baby.

Remember this: Any attempt you make to control other people actually puts you under their control. If you decide you can’t be happy until your mother finally understands you, her dysfunction will rule your life. You could spend the next 20 years trying to please her so much that she’d just have to accept you—and she still might not. Or you could hold her at gunpoint and threaten her into saying the words you want to hear, but you’ll never control her real thoughts and feelings. Never.

The only way you can avoid getting stuck in other people’s craziness is to follow codependency author Melody Beattie’s counterintuitive advice: “Unhook from their systems by refusing to try to control them.” Don’t violate your own code of values and ethics, but don’t waste energy trying to make other people violate theirs. If soul-searching has shown you that your mother’s opinions are wrong for you—as are your grandfather’s bigotry, your sister’s new religion, and your cousin’s alcoholism—hold that truth in your heart, whether or not your family members validate it. Feel what you feel, know what you know, and set your relatives free to do the same.

If you’ve been deeply wounded by your family, you can stop trying to control them by accepting full responsibility for your healing. I’m not suggesting you shoulder all the blame, but rather that you acknowledge that you and only you have the ability to respond to injury by seeking cures instead of furthering pain. Whatever the situation, accepting that you can control only your own thoughts and actions will help you mend more quickly and thoroughly.

Strategy #4: Become a Participant Observer

Some social scientists use a technique called participant observation, meaning that they join groups of people in order to watch and report on whatever those people do. Back when I was training to become a sociologist, I loved participant observation. People I might normally have avoided—criminals, fundamentalists, PTA presidents—became absolutely fascinating when I was participant-observing them. Almost any group activity is interesting when you’re planning to describe it later to someone who’s on your wavelength. Here are some approaches to help you become a participant observer of your own family.

Queen for a Day

This little game is based on the old TV show in which four women competed to see who had the most miserable life. The contestant judged most pathetic got, among other things, a washing machine in which to cleanse her tear-stained clothing. My version goes like this: Prior to a family function, arrange to meet with at least two friends—more, if possible—after the holidays. You’ll each tell the stories of your respective family get-togethers, then vote to see whose experience was most horrendous. That person will then be crowned queen, and the others will buy her lunch.

Comedy Club

In this exercise, you look to your family not for love and understanding but for comedy material. Watch closely. The more atrocious your family’s behavior is, the funnier it can be in the retelling. Watch stand-up comics to see the enormous fun they can have describing appalling marriages, ghastly parenting, or poisonous family secrets. When you’re back among friends, telling your own wild stories, you may find that you no longer suffer from your family’s brand of insanity; you’ve actually started to enjoy it.

Dysfunctional Family Bingo

This is one of my favorite games, though it involves considerable preparation. A few weeks before the holidays, gather with friends and provide each person with a bingo card. Each player fills in her bingo squares with dysfunctional phrases or actions that are likely to surface at her particular family party. For example, if you dread the inevitable “So when are you going to get married?” that question goes in one square of your bingo card. If your brother typically shows up crocked to the gills, put “Al is drunk” in another square, and so on.

Take your finished cards to your respective family gatherings. Whenever you observe something that appears on your bingo card, mark off that square. The first person to get bingo must sneak off to call the other players, and announce her victory. If no one has a full bingo, the person who has the largest number of filled-out squares wins the game. The winner shall be determined at the post-holiday meeting, where she will be granted the ever gratifying free lunch.

Strategy #5: Debrief

Even if you don’t play any participant observation games, it’s crucial to follow up on family events by debriefing with someone you love. If your brother really “gets” you, call him after a family dinner you’ve both survived. If you don’t trust anyone who shares a shred of your DNA, report to a friend or therapist. Generally speaking, you can schedule a debriefing session for a few weeks after the holidays, when everybody’s schedule is back to normal. However, you should exchange phone calls with your debriefing partners within a day or so of the family encounter, just to reconnect with the outside world and head off any annoying little problems, such as ill-considered suicide.

All of these strategies, from relinquishing hope of transformation to mimicking your relatives in riotous conversations with your friends, are designed to help you love your family unconditionally, in whatever way works best for you. They help you greet the tar baby with genuine affection, then walk away clear and happy. And that, in the end, may be the best holiday present you’ll ever give to the people you cherish most.

1123
2011

Party On: A Survival Guide for Social-Phobes

If you are reading this with mounting excitement, thinking about the wonderful parties you’re going to throw or attend this holiday season, allow me to congratulate you. I’m one of the millions of party-impaired individuals who stand in awe of people like you—people who love to entertain, meet new friends, cavort with fun-loving crowds. When you invite the rest of us to your celebrations, we are honored, even though it brings us the same joy we’d feel if you handed us a large, angry scorpion. 

For party-phobes like myself, it’s a struggle to remember in the celebratory horrors of the season that we are not alone. Everyone around you may look as happy as a hog in slop, but if you spiked the punch with sodium pentothal, you’d probably find that a large number of the guests get nervous, if not at this particular party then at others. I have friends who dread intimate get-togethers with close friends, the only type of party that doesn’t make me want to open my veins with a crab fork. Yet they actually enjoy experiences that haunt my nightmares, such as huge revels where thousands of strangers chug beer from plastic cups and shout to one another over deafening music. 

If the thought of a party alarms you, it’s likely you suffer from some level of social phobia, the most common anxiety disorder to afflict Americans. Its primary symptom is an oppressive sense of being criticized and judged. True social-phobes are so unnerved by this feeling that they can’t relax unless they are completely alone. Most of us aren’t that badly afflicted, but the season’s festivities are likely to ignite any wisps of social anxiety we happen to have. Headed for some gala event, you might find yourself feeling tense and irritable rather than relaxed and jolly. You may feel as if you’re walking into a war zone. 

A War Party

The phrase “war party” not only describes a gang of soldiers but also signifies a method of heightening courage before combat. A phenomenon called social contagion accentuates emotion when we gather in groups. It can turn ordinary people into murderous mobs, panicky crowds, or selfless martyrs. Warlike cultures traditionally utilize this tendency to excite fighters so much that they’ll happily march into mortal danger. The warriors wear special clothing, paint their faces, and indulge in what anthropologists call the four D’s: drinking, drugging, dancing, and drumming. All these activities help put people in that hazy psychological territory where pure action rules and thought becomes irrelevant. My favorite term for this condition comes from ancient Ireland, where soldiers aspired to a condition called a warp spasm. This was a sort of Incredible Hulk experience in which warriors were literally transformed into wild, fearless, invincible heroes. 

If this description doesn’t remind you of a holiday party, you don’t have much social anxiety. We party-phobes know exactly how it feels to don the armor of a little black dress, slather on our best war paint, and throw ourselves into the four D’s, hoping desperately for a warp spasm to grab us and carry us beyond our fear. The phobic person’s party rituals aren’t expressions of joy. Every act, from choosing clothes to making small talk, is a fear-based defense against criticism: What will people think of my shoes, my hair, my conversation? Celebrations loom like battles, crowded with opponents who can’t wait to skewer us on the blades of disdain and rejection. Fortunately, there is hope for the party-impaired. 

Acknowledge The Facts

Most of us social-phobes try to cheer ourselves up with vague positive thinking, hoping that something will happen so that this shindig won’t be as excruciating as the last. It’s wiser to simply admit that we feel like we’re headed to our own execution, except that we won’t get to be dead afterward. 

But we also have to realize that our social anxiety is telling us lies, primarily a ridiculous fiction that everyone is scrutinizing us for flaws. It helps me to remember the 20-40-60 rule, which I learned from a friend: “When you’re 20, you’re obsessed with what everyone is thinking about you; when you’re 40, you stop caring what people are thinking about you; and when you’re 60, you realize that no one was ever thinking about you.” Mentally repeating this adage might help moderate your unease as you near the front.

Choose Your Battles

Anxiety tells you that the enemies you’ll encounter at a celebration are your fellow partygoers. This is another lie. The truth is that you’re always fighting on the same side as everyone else, because the real enemies are shame, fear, and cruel judgment, which hurt us all. 

Unfortunately, most of us social-phobes guard ourselves against other people, rather than cruelty itself. This promptly creates what we fear. In social situations, people unconsciously observe very subtle signals to determine who is or is not approachable. When we’re fearful, we send “go away” messages with our voices, bodies, and facial expressions: Being scared makes us scary. One of my favorite silly jokes is about a half-blind man who buys a wooden eye because he can’t afford a glass one. He self-consciously enters a nightclub, breathing a sigh of relief when he notices a pretty woman with a false leg, sitting by herself. The man drums up just enough courage to ask her, “Would you like to dance?” She joyfully exclaims, “Would I! Would I!” But of course, what the man hears is “Wood eye! Wood eye!” Hurt to the core, he shouts, “Peg leg! Peg leg!” Both he and the woman flee homeward, to live out their lives in bitter solitude. 

This is the dynamic of fear; it makes us overreact to imagined slights and forget to treat other people with simple kindness. If people do reject us, it’s very often because they feel we’ve already rejected them. 

Use The Right Strategy

I used to think that I needed a whole armory full of impressive weapons to survive a party—things like cleverness, thin thighs, social connections, and wealth, none of which I happened to possess. Now that I am older and…well, older, I’ve come to believe that only two strategies are necessary in any festive situation: reciprocity and honesty. Both are easy to grasp and readily available. 

Reciprocity 
“The norm of reciprocity” is the sociological term for people’s near-ineluctable tendency to treat others as others treat them. It isn’t a moral principle, like the Golden Rule, but a compelling feature of our innate psychology. The “wood eye” story illustrates how reciprocity can make two vulnerable people treat each other abominably. The same dynamic can create powerful positive interactions. If you walk into a party brooding, They’ll think I look terrible, you’re guaranteed to trigger other people’s social phobias. If you walk in thinking, Don’t they all look marvelous!, your behavior will elicit kind judgments rather than cruel ones. 

At a gathering, it helps to use a first-strike capacity. Be aggressively nonjudgmental. Notice impressive traits about other people, and mention them. Genuine admiration is incredibly powerful ammunition. Statements like “I love your haircut” and “Wow, you have a great voice” disarm other people’s social anxiety. The norm of reciprocity makes them judge you positively. Boom! Your mutual enemy is slain at the outset of battle. 

If you encounter someone who really is judgmental, remember this: Harsh critics are always people who fear criticism. At worst, kindness will confuse them; at best utterly disarm them. 

Honesty 
Social-phobes dread party talk. We’re petrified of saying something stupid, something that will reveal us as the jackasses we are, rather than the social maestros we wish we were. We overlook the fact that the conversational skill most effective at breaching social barriers is not eloquence but honesty. When you’re at a loss for the right party words, I recommend the unconventional strategy of telling the truth. 

I’ve learned to do this, for example, in matters relating to alcohol. When someone asks me to choose a wine for dinner, I sing out the embarrassing truth. “Sorry,” I say, “I was raised Mormon. The only party beverage I ever saw anyone drink was Robitussin straight from the bottle. Help!” People seem to just love this. It makes them feel smart and special, which indeed they are. 

Once you start telling the truth in festive settings, you may end up leaking the Big Secret: the fact that you have social anxiety. I recently—reluctantly—attended a party where you couldn’t wave a spoon without hitting a rich, famous person in the eye. At one point, I found myself rubbing elbows with a person so rich and famous I nearly screamed. 

“Having fun?” said the rich and famous person. 

“Hell, no,” I heard myself say. “I’m scared to death.” 

“So am I!” she beamed, and the two of us began an unexpectedly comfortable conversation. 

After a while, our unbelievably rich, famous host came by. “Hey,” he said, “you two aren’t working the room. You should hobnob.” 

My new friend replied calmly, “Dude, I have hobbed my last nob.” Our host looked shocked, then enormously relieved. Suddenly, instead of a blithering idiot and two rich, famous people, we were just three ordinary humans enjoying one another’s company. 

In his classic treatise The Art of War, the Chinese general Sun Tzu commented that the best way to win a conflict is to stop it before it arises. Once you have learned how to target your real enemies of shame and fear and fight them with effective weapons, the terrors of this party season may begin dissolving before they form. Holiday celebrations just might become what everyone tells you they should be: delightful occasions that warm, connect, and help us feel the goodwill that was present for us all along. 

Advice for Enjoying the Festivities

1. You don’t have to accept every invitation, so choose gatherings that make you most comfortable: Wild and woolly bashes with masses of guests??Holiday open houses? Small dinners with friends? 

2. Promise yourself that you can leave after 30 minutes if you’re truly miserable. Just knowing you have an out eases the stress of schmoozing—and you’ll probably end up staying longer than half an hour. 

3. Instead of going to a party alone, contact a friend who’s also been invited and arrange to meet for a drink before. It’s easier to face a crowd with a partner, and you’ll have someone to compare notes with. 

4. Collect a few icebreakers: When you find yourself standing at the bar or reaching a dead end in a conversation, news of a sighting of Bessie, the Lake Erie monster, or some other tidbit that caught your attention will make it that much easier to mingle. 

5. When all else fails, take a break from small talk and spend a few minutes with the host’s children, dog, hamster, Lava lamp, etc. 

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