Dealing with Family at Holiday Time
(This is a chapter from the e-book, Heretic Holidays: Tips from Two Religious Renegades, by Marlene Winell and Valerie Tarico)
At this time of year it’s hard to avoid dealing with the differences you have with your family. If you are a “reclaimer” (reclaiming your life after being religious) who has been raised in a religious household, holiday times can be very uncomfortable when other family members are still devout. Having worked through these issues with many clients, here are a few guidelines that might be helpful.
I’ll start by suggesting you write in a journal, starting now and continuing through the holidays. This can help you sort through jumbled thoughts and emotions, stay on track with how you are trying to handle things, take care of yourself, and learn. There are exercises here to prompt your thinking.
In general, if you plan to be with family at this time, it helps a great deal to approach the holidays with a high level of consciousness. In other words, don’t just blindly go home for Christmas, hoping it will be fine. What do you really expect it might be like? This refers to both external factors and how you will feel. What experiences have you had so far with your family? What have you found to work or not work in getting along? Write something about this in your journal.
Sometimes reclaimers simply avoid going home in order to avoid conflict. At times this is the only healthy course of action. But sometimes, by planning ahead, it can be possible to navigate around the land mines. The difference in this approach, compared to simply not showing up, is that you are acting out of reasoned choice and not out of fear or anger.
In the process of recovering from the harm done by religious indoctrination, most people reach a point at which they must weigh “coming out” as a nonbeliever because the tension of “integrity vs. intimacy” becomes too much. That is, the urge to be true to oneself becomes stronger than the need for approval required to stay close to family members. It does not need to happen right away, and can take a variety of forms. However, holiday time puts pressure on your relationships, and it could raise this question for you. If you haven’t already, spend some time thinking about whether this is the time to come out with family. It may or may not be. There are also degrees of being “out” and probably different family members to consider being more or less open with about your new thoughts and feelings.
Here’s a basic plan for coping. There are external action items, as well as internal or mental techniques. You may notice a bonus here, which is that there are great lessons to learn that apply to your growth and recovery generally.
As you think about what you want to do, realize that you do not have an obligation to spend holiday time with family. (What?) If you commit not to do anything out of guilt or obligation, this will make it easier to choose what amount of contact you want and what form it will take. You need to let your parents take responsibility for their own feelings, which are often the result of choices they have made in their own lives. It doesn’t mean you have to be unkind. You can certainly be empathic in your expression, such as, “I know you would like me to be home for Christmas and this is a surprise, and I’m sorry you feel disappointed. At the same time, spending it on my own this year is what I feel is best for me, and I’m hoping you will accept that.” You can also suggest alternative plans for what you think is workable – the number of days, phone contact instead, inviting them to your place, etc.
If this sounds like you being the grown-up, that’s right. Especially if you are in early stages of recovering from religion, you are learning about taking care of yourself. In the language I use for this, your Adult self is learning to take charge and care for your Child self. You are no longer considering yourself helpless, weak, stupid, or basically bad. You don’t need saving and you don’t need to outsource your needs for guidance and love to a god or church. This is great and freeing; it’s also a big responsibility. When you go visit your parents, your Adult absolutely needs to take good care of your Child. Otherwise, it is all too easy to regress to a childlike state and have problems fairly immediately.
Let me explain a bit more about this, because this is a powerful coping strategy. Your Adult is the part of you that can think rationally, have intention, and plan ahead. It’s also the part that can nurture and care for your Child self by advocating for your Child’s needs. So, before you even start on this visit, you, as an adult, can think about your Intention for this visit. Do you want it to be a jolly Christmas just like when you were a kid, with Santa and hot chocolate? Are you going to church on Christmas Eve? Why or why not? How will you handle it? Will you be discussing your beliefs? Do you want any religion at all? Why do you want to go? What are you hoping for that is actually possible? What are you willing to let go of that is not possible? Do you want to engage in debates? Will you be “coming out”? If you are asked about who you are now or what you believe, how will you answer?
Writing exercise: Write out your intentions for your visit.
Now, as you know, the best of intentions don’t always work out. That’s why you feel nervous. In the self-care terminology I’m using, it’s your Child that’s scared, and it’s my opinion that your real obligation is to make sure that your Child feels safe, both before and during the visit. (This usage of “Child” refers to the natural, innocent, child-like, emotional aspect of you that requires love and care, and is vulnerable. It was not sinful at birth, and when healed from abusive indoctrination, can be happy and healthy.) This might mean taking breaks in order to self-soothe with some positive self-talk. Ultimately, it would include promising to simply leave if the situation became too uncomfortable. I always explain to my clients that as they are healing, the trust between Adult and Child needs to strengthen, so a good thing is to promise your Child that you will take her/him away if a situation gets bad or painful, just like you would a real child who was struggling.
Christmas is often a little tender for an inner child since there might be memories of good things, sadness over losses, or confusion at this time. If you spend a little time consulting your Child about what aspects of the holiday you still want to experience, what do you find? Making cookies? Writing cards to family and friends? Singing? Playing in the snow? Cutting paper snow flakes? If you want to avoid the commercialism of too much gift buying, are there substitutes you prefer? If you are not just a victim of the holiday, what might you accept or arrange for your little self to enjoy? Or what would you help others enjoy? For ideas about celebrating and reclaiming the Christmas holiday as a nonbeliever, go Here for a new article by Valerie Tarico.
Imagining various scenarios, what do you think your options might be if you get overwhelmed by your relatives’ religious talk? Can you excuse yourself, take a break, change the subject, focus on something else? Do you need to bring anything along to help? A game or puzzle?
Writing exercise: Write a letter to your Child from your Adult self, explaining how you will provide protection during the visit, and promising to leave if necessary. Describe the fun things that will be included. Talk about what you will do if you are getting triggered by too much religiosity. Make a list of options you will have ready.
Reframe the Religion
Especially if your family is very devout and authoritarian about their beliefs, you need to have a way of thinking about their religion that is different from the way you did as a child. That may sound obvious because intellectually you have decided you don’t believe any more. However, when in the situation, you may respond emotionally, and even intensely. This is not because you have reverted to “believing” but because you can be triggered at a gut level to fear that it is true. Rethinking this belief system is a larger task of recovery that can take time and work, and is very important. For now, the challenge is to be in your old environment and not slip into being your old self or be intimidated by old forces. You can prepare by thinking about what this religion is – e.g., a belief system like many other ancient systems that has evolved to help people cope with what they don’t understand, a virus, a meme complex, etc. Anything but The Truth. Even if it feels true because everyone around you is treating it like the truth. Hundreds of years ago everyone believed the earth was flat, it looked flat, and it felt flat. But that wasn’t true either.
Thinking about the religion as the source of the conflict, difference, pain, and separation in your family (or at least part of it), may help you feel less direct anger or frustration with the people involved. As a virus, religion propagates by getting passed on to small children, and continues through generations. Essentially, your parents were infected and thus victims as well. They did not have these religious ideas at birth, and even now, they each have an inner child too (weird, huh?) You were fortunate to escape, and also to be congratulated for finding your way out! A holiday visit is probably not the time to go deep into family work, so I’m not suggesting you look for understanding each other, find forgiveness, or anything else that is complicated. However, just knowing that your family members did not invent this very pernicious system might help you relax and have a bit of compassion. It does mean that you did not suffer or that your issues will not ever be addressed.
Writing exercise: Before you head for a family get-together, write about how you conceptualize your religion now, and review your reasons for leaving. How does it feel to view your relatives in the context of larger forces?
Communicate clearly with family
After sorting through all your thoughts and feelings, you need to state clearly to your relatives your intentions for your time together. This is before you leave home. I suggest this be done simply and from the heart, and say more, not less. Include all of your feelings – your nervousness, your hesitation, your hopes, your fears, your love, your clarity about limits. It helps to write it down first, or rehearse it with someone. Here’s an example. You would alter it to suit you of course. I’ve written it as if a monologue, but it would be broken up to allow the other person to speak.
“Hi Mom, I’ve been trying to decide what to do about Christmas and this is hard for me to talk about. I’m a bit worried I don’t have the right words, so please be patient with me here. (deep breath). The last thing I want to do is upset you, and I know that you might have to get used to what’s happening with me. I’ve changed so much and not always comfortable being around family. . . I’m sure you went through a lot of growing up changes when you were my age too. . . . I hope you can understand. . . anyway I do want to see you guys and I want to have a nice time. I love you. I know you want to see me. . . I won’t be staying for a full week like usual; it’ll just be three days. . . I just need a bit of time for myself this year. . . yes, I can hear that you are disappointed, and I’m sorry about that. . . I do want to make the time we have together the best we can, and I have some suggestions about that. We always enjoy hikes in the woods so lets remember to do that, ok? And here’s something important - I’d like to keep our conversations to what we are doing in our regular lives, and of course chat about what we are doing together in the moment, like making your famous pecan pie, which I want to learn, by the way. I’d like to stay away from religion for now since I’m sorting that out for myself and I’m not comfortable discussing it. I know that this isn’t easy for you but I’m hoping you can accept it so that I can feel relaxed. . . I certainly don’t want to be avoiding you or avoiding a visit on Christmas. I just have to be honest, you know? Also, I won’t be going to church on Christmas Eve. But I’d love to babysit the grandkids and play games with them while you are out. Do you have any more ideas? Anything you’d like me to bring?”
Naturally, you would be pausing to listen to let the other party speak and respond with empathy. That is, gently and with understanding rephrase what you have heard so they know that you are listening. At the end of the call, it’s okay to ask them to repeat back to you what you have said, e.g. “Could you do something for me before we finish? This is important to me and I’ll be much more relaxed if I feel sure I’ve communicated well. Could you please repeat back to me what you think I’m asking so I can know if I’ve been clear?” And of course, “Thank-you, I appreciate it,” etc.
Writing exercise: Write out what you want to say to your family when you discuss your holiday plans.
Have a buddy. While you prepare for this visit, talk it over with someone who understands. This may be a fellow “reclaimer” or just a good friend. They can help by role-playing your phone conversation with family and also be there to listen to just your side of the conversation. This helps you to see yourself in part through their eyes rather than just through the eyes of the person on the other end of the call.
During your family visit as well, it’s a good idea to arrange to have someone available to you to talk and get support. At a time of stress, you might well benefit from calling this friend.
Back-up plan. If you know that the visit might not go well, and you might have to leave in order to take care of yourself, plan ahead for what you will do. Set up a clear plan for where you will go and what pleasant activities you have in mind.
Writing exercise: Describe what you will do instead if your family visit ends early.
During the Visit
Bring along your journal and have your written intention handy to reread to remind yourself. You will probably need this. Most people find it challenging to stay “Adult” when certain situations call for it. Being with religious family is usually one of them. This is not to say your Child cannot play and hopefully there will be opportunity for that. But to stay safe, and feel like you are maintaining who you are now, rereading your intentions will help. You can add to the journaling of course, and you will notice developments. One of them will be to relate to family members with new awareness. You may have some new compassion for a cousin who seem stuck in the faith, for example. Or you may see how your mother obeys your father and represses her own expression. If your intention is “to spend some quality time with close family members and keep connected,” you can concentrate on that and not drift into debates.
Staying with your intentions may also include repeating yourself to others. What you said at the beginning before coming to the holiday gathering may need restating, to more than one person, and more than one time. If you aren’t afraid to do this, and express yourself with both compassion and assertiveness, your sense of self will begin to feel more self-defined and less vulnerable.
Play anthropologist. Once you have recognized that religion is a huge meme complex that takes on a power of its own, you can view people within that system from that perspective. Other reclaimers I’ve known have found it very useful to visit family and maintain some distance by pretending to have the viewpoint of an anthropologist. This attitude is nonjudgmental, curious, and unemotional. An anthropologist often takes the role of “participant observer” in order to gain access to a group, and learn about their customs. So you can watch everyone bow their heads, close their eyes and speak to an imaginary being, and find that very interesting without freaking out. They might all go off to celebrate the child of this imaginary being who was born thousands of years ago, and has somehow saved them. Fascinating. The songs are also quite amazing in the stories they tell.
Writing exercise: As a social scientist, describe in your journal what you are learning about this culture you are observing. Let yourself enjoy the quirky things you are noticing.
Translate the words. Now sometimes it can get more personal, and that when it’s more challenging. How do you feel when you are asked, “Where are you fellowshipping now?” We forget how arbitrary the Christian symbols and terms are in the vast array of mythological options. How about the Greek gods or Atlantis or Rama and Sita? What about Australian “little people,” Irish leprechauns, and faeries? You can diffuse the heavy loading of Christian language by translating words in your head. When your father asks you, “How’s your walk with the Lord?”, you can hear “How’s your walk with the leprechaun king?” and “When did you go to church last?” translates “When did you last dance with the faeries in the moonlight?” If they read the Bible together, you can see them in a cave poring over ancient leprechaun scriptures. Of course they believe all of it, and you won’t be able to convince them otherwise. More importantly, you don’t need to get scared, or even angry. When you reply, “That’s not really part of my life anymore,” you can do so calmly, as if you just don’t make treks into the forest to see fairies at midnight any longer.
Writing exercise: Describe what it is like to reinterpret Christian messages and respond accordingly.
It’s not all about you. Much as these relationship issues may hurt, the truth is that it’s not personal. Religion itself causes separation between people, it causes dogmatism, and it makes it very difficult for people to listen, change, or learn. This religion your family has is much bigger than you. So if you do not take it personally, you will be much happier. Try to breathe and bring some equanimity to the situation, knowing that you have done nothing wrong.
Stay with your values. Regardless of what is happening, do what you want to do because that is what you have decided. For example, if everyone wants to do more shopping, and you want some fun time with the children, choose that. Reclaim your holiday. Remember why you decided to make the visit. Do what brings you and others joy and meaning.
Connect as humans. That may sound funny but the truth is religious people develop dual personalities. One lives in a “spiritual” world of angels and demons and worries about sin and an afterlife. The other is an ordinary human being like you and me who likes to eat good food, needs love, watches movies, appreciates sunsets, hates traffic jams, and will help rescue a kitten. That person likes compliments, wants to feel needed, etc. There are personality differences, but basic human needs are the same and you can stick to this human level as you relate. In fact, I’ve found that many religious people actually appreciate being treated in a deeply genuine way. Like everyone else, they like to be heard, they want to matter, and they need to have their thoughts and feelings count. So the best way to get along, believe it or not, is to ignore their religion. Simply focus on the human side of life, and if they bring up religious things, bring it back to reality. If that doesn’t work, take a break, and/or repeat your intention like I describe in the beginning.
Let go of approval. A leftover from religious training is to judge absolutely everything. This includes evaluating yourself, and being concerned about what other people think. Yet, you’ll find that it is extremely liberating to do what you consider the right thing to do simply because it fits with your identity and your integrity. We often want others to appreciate us when we do good things. And in this case, if you are working very hard to become the person you really want to be, it would be nice to get acceptance, if not approval. But if you let go of that you can get satisfaction from choosing to act in harmony with your new, self-chosen values regardless of others’ reaction. Then, if your family sees you and understands you, great. If not, you have done a marvelous thing by just being with them and being yourself. It also helps to not take yourself too seriously. Don’t forget to enjoy the lighter side of your connections with others.
A word of caution and congratulations
Don’t set yourself up to do everything well. You will do some things well and other things will go awry. If all went seamlessly, that would be weird. If you have to leave early, that is fine. Go to Plan B like you planned and enjoy yourself. Take care of your Child above all.
If there is a family blow-up, so be it. Everything is process. No matter what, you and everyone else will learn. Sometimes intense emotions just have to be expressed. Sometimes family crises just have to happen, just like forest fires are a natural part of a cycle. It’s no one’s fault. It certainly helps to hang on to your sense of humor. No matter what, you are on a journey, and you are growing and healing and reclaiming your life.
Writing exercise: Don’t miss out on lessons learned. Write about what this was like for you and how you grew from the experience. In addition to the serious bits, include the funny parts.
Dealing with your family during the holidays is a step in your journey. It takes courage to recover from religion so again, I congratulate you.
Marlene Winell, Ph.D. works with people recovering from religious indoctrination. She can be reached through Journey Free at https://journeyfree.org.