As a clinical psychologist and younger sibling, I am qualified to make the following statement: It is every younger sibling’s God-given right to annoy the crap out of older siblings.
With the recent passing (and subsequent gas-passing) of Thanksgiving, the holiday season is firmly upon us. For many, that means traveling over proverbial rivers and through metaphorical woods to families and childhood homes. Despite all the cheer and good will, we are all probably too familiar with the cliche of family strife waiting under the Christmas Tree, Menorah, or Kwanzaa unity cup.
In other words, it is a cliche that spans cultures; Hollywood has exploited this shtick to the max (see Example A here, or Example B here). Clearly the idea of family-holiday-weekend-gone wrong is familiar enough to inspire formulaic schmaltz.
So, what’s the deal? Can’t we all get along? The answer, quite simply, is probably not. These conflicts are a compulsion; we seem to play our roles from childhood that we probably are least interested in reprising. Many times have I found myself, a professional psychologist who has lived on his own for many years, torturing my own, equally professional, older sister with a finger in front of the face; it’s our ongoing Clarissa/Ferguson moment. Why does this happen?
First of all, in the case of family conflict, the adage “out of sight, out of mind” does not necessarily apply. People often think that leaving a situation will automatically improve it. This might be the case, as in an abusive relationship, when it is essential to get away. However, flying the nest is not so simple; your father is still going to the bathroom with the door open, even though you’re not there to be ashamed by it. And, sorry to say, but those essential family conflicts and dynamics follow us along, and in fact, we unknowingly carry them with us. An examination of our development psychology can elucidate us.
I wrote in an earlier post about integrating the nourishment of our caregivers so that we can grow and rely upon ourselves. This is what happens in childhood development: We create representations of our parents or important adult figures in our minds to give us a sense of self, of direction, morality, etc. These are internal models in our minds of who we are, who are family members are, and the role that we play between these parts; like a schematic blueprint of ourselves in relation to others. That blueprint is first provided for us externally by our parents, then becomes integrated as a part of our own selves.
Like Tootie learned on The Facts of Life, however, you take the good with the bad. Think of those things that annoy you about your parents. Now, think of whether you carry some of those traits as well. How many times have you or a friend said to yourself, “Oh my god, I’m becoming my mother/father!!!” as you shudder in horror? I’ll bet a few. Along with the love that hopefully you have gained from them and integrated into your being, when you leave home, you also hold on to the aggravating aspects. Often times these are the characteristics of ourselves we are most bothered by. We recognize them as both part of us, but also as from someone else. We get angry at ourselves for having these traits.
Flash forward to the return home. After the warm greetings and egg nog, latkes, ham, whatever, the conflict returns, right where you left it. First of all, it was never resolved to begin with, so those old patterns rise faster than a Turkey thermometer. It is like the physical structure of the home triggers the mental schemata of family roles and positions.
Secondly, those internal aggravating aspects of ourselves that we have grown to hate return to their external place of origin, emanating from that of which they began, i.e., our caregivers. And seeing it externally makes it easier to attack; hence the family argument. For example, your mother’s complaint that the house cleaners probably stole the vacuum just reminds you that you have become judgmental in your maturing age. You recognize that you have internalized this trait, resent it and that from which it came, and the conflict ensues.
In hindsight, perhaps this post should rather be titled: You can’t leave home… ever. Perhaps all we can do is gain a little perspective on it, and have realistic expectations for who we are, and try to be tolerant of others in our families. Hopefully your holiday is filled with more cheer than jeer, and if it’s like my family, hopefully there is lots of booze.
Josh Hooberman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who works at a large Manhattan hospital and keeps a small private psychotherapy practice. He probably thinks you’re crazy.