In my family, we celebrate Christmas at this time of the year. Even though my kids are now adults (just) and my mum is a grandmother, Christmas still seems to bring out the child in all of us. Maybe the fact that Christmas is so sensoral is the reason it evokes such potent memories and experiences of childhood. For me, these memories involve the smell of pine and eucalyptus, sultry days under green canopies (I grew up in Australia in the mountains), being up at 5am to do a pre-emptive appraisal of the presents under the tree, eating slightly liquid chocolates under the long makeshift table with my cousins, hot fruit-ladened pudding full of five cent pieces, lazy evenings playing with presents and watching Christmas shows.
While everyone has a different experience of Christmas and other celebratory holidays, the memories of these experiences often seem to have a touch of magic that transcends the years. My kids still get excited by the prospect of putting up the tree complete with slightly dog-eared handmade decorations and sharing a meal with family (ok, they still like getting presents too). I feel it too, that slight quickening that happens at this time of the year.
Of course, this can also have a shadow side. The vulnerability that allows us to feel that sense of childlike wonder can also allow us to be triggered by not-so-positive childhood experiences. Aunty might remind us that we were not a very bright child, grandpa may laugh at the time we wet our pants after a meltdown (sending us into a shame spiral, even though it was 20 years ago) or we may fall back into old patterns with siblings.
Family can also resurrect old versions of ourselves that we thought we’d well and truly put behind us. We may be confident, capable people in the world now, but when we are with people who rarely see us, and whose strongest memories of us are when we were children, it can sometimes feel like we are being sucked back in time, like the intervening years never happened. We revert to being that weedy kid who couldn’t catch or that bossy kid who told everyone what to do or the shy kid who felt invisible. Old hurts or insecurities can easily be triggered.
Similarly, old narratives of who we once were may be unearthed. Sometimes these were positive stories family told about us—we were the clever/brave/athletic/creative/funny/theatrical/nurturing one—but they aren’t who we are anymore. Maybe we never were those things.
So how can we enjoy the festive season, with all its memories and gifts, without being undone by the ghosts of our past selves?
Here are a few ideas:
- Whenever you feel the uncomfortable prickle of past shames being triggered, look the shame square in the eye and think about what it has taught you about who you are. Often those experiences are the exact things that motivated us to change, grow and move on.
- If someone says something that sends you spiralling, bring the focus back to them. Talk about something you appreciate or value about them. This not only shifts the focus from you and their version of you, it is likely to disarm them and make them see you in a different light. Gratitude has also been shown to improve mood and wellbeing, so you will be giving yourself a gift at the same time.
- Externalise that younger version of yourself. See the child they are remembering as separate from the person you are now. Bring compassion and empathy to the child and imagine yourself taking care of them. Be on their side.
- Last but not least, take a step back and remember that we are all a messy blend of personality traits, partial memories, insecurities, quirks and needs. We all want to be appreciated, valued and understood, even the people who intentionally or unintentionally want to freeze you in the 4th grade. If you can, enjoy the lovely chaos that makes us all human.
Wishing you a happy festive season and New Year.