SF Counseling Center

Holidays – Your Quick Survival Guide (part 1 of 3 Understanding the Problem)

Idealized Expectations During the Holidays

One of the biggest concerns on many people’s minds at this time of the year is how to survive the holidays.  Sure, in the popular media there are depictions of families happily gathering together in a cozy setting to enjoy very special time together.  Increasingly, however, those images are being reserved for advertising.  We are shown that if you purchase this product or that product, your holiday meal will successfully involve all of your family and friends enjoying warm, Norman Rockwell-esque nostalgia-worthy holidays. In the past several years, some movies and comedies have explored the areas in which family holiday experiences fall short of the ideal and stir up everyone’s’ issues.

It seems that many people develop idealized images or goals of what they want to have happened when they are with their family over the holidays.  Perhaps in part, reinforced by cultural images, these idealized expectations take on greater strength.  Another significant factor is that many of us tend to regress emotionally during the holidays.  It is as if the more adult part of us that knows what to expect gives way to the hopeful child who is yearning to have unmet desires and expectations met.  There can almost be a sense of conviction that ‘this will be the year.’  It is not difficult to see how this can be a set up for unhappiness.

Let’s look in a little more detail how some of the problems might happen; then we can look at what we can do about them.

Idealization and Other Psychological Defenses

Let’s go back to the beginning.  As infants, it is entirely normal for us to idealize our parents.  For most people, this continues through childhood and gets shaken a bit in adolescence.  Often, it is at that time, adolescents discover parents have flaws. At this time, it is common for the adolescent to have contempt for the formerly idealized parent.  Parenthetically, it might be easy to see that the contempt is just the other side of idealization and does not necessarily reflect any more sophisticated understanding by the adolescent.

Instead, it is through integrating numerous images of the idealized parent with the flawed parent that a more realistic relationship can begin to emerge.  This is true both to the relationship one has with the internalized image of the parent and perhaps with the parent in the real world.  It’s a bit like looking first out of one eye and then another.  It is only by using both eyes, with their slightly different perspectives do we begin to see in three dimensions.

It might already be easy to see any number of ways things could go wrong.

  • A parent might not allow the normal devaluation that is common and perhaps necessary in adolescence.  They might see it as intolerably disrespectful or as lacking gratitude.  The parent(s) fear can stimy the child’s development. (There is a difference between what is thought/felt and how this are expressed – between thoughts and actions).
  • The parents could be unhappily married, and the child could attribute the parent(s) lack of availability or attunement as somehow reflective of the child’s worth.  Until late latency, it is not uncommon for children to assume problems in the family are because of them.
  • A parent could be depressed, anxious, drug and/or alcohol dependent and/or have a mental illness.  This might also have the same effect (amongst a host of many others) as the point noted above.
  • The parent could be struggling with some form of an unresolved issue about their childhood.  Professor Mary Main at UC Berkeley has outlined these issues extensively; particularly how the parent’s psychology can affect the developing child.  See in particular her article from the year 2000.
  • More problematically still is the possibility of abandoning or abusive parents.

Psychological Defenses

There are many different psychological defenses; too many to list and describe here. However, we will explore a couple.  One thing to keep in mind is that all defenses are little tricks our minds play on itself.  This happens unconsciously.  Let’s take that in for a second.  Our mind is monitoring us, and plays little tricks on us – keeps certain thoughts, feelings, perceptions or bits of knowledge from our conscious mind.

These little tricks – the psychological defenses – help us and they can really help us get through a difficult moment (and sometimes help us get through challenging protracted situations).  However, they mostly seem to be focused on getting us through the moment, and that can (sometimes) come at the expense of the long-term situation.  For example, denying the symptoms of a heart attack might help minimize the panic one might feel, but the same defenses might prevent the person from seeking immediate treatment.  In this case, the defense of denial has served it’s short-term purpose, but may cause longer-term problems.

One of the most basic defenses is splitting.  This is the situation in which the infant/child organizes the chaos of the world into good and bad.  This simple system allows us to make order out of innumerable stimuli.  If we only have to think in terms of two categories, the world becomes more manageable. This defense is thought to be one of the earliest defenses and is developmentally normative.  As noted above, the next step is to develop a more rounded image of parents, and others in the world.  Psychologists think this process begins in childhood.  It is important to know, however, that under stress, we can all regress to the use of more basic defenses such as splitting.

Idealization (which is part of splitting) seems to be an evolutionarily robust defense.  We know that infants and children need to have a sense of safety.  If you idealize your parent(s), then you have a hero who can rescue you from the lion.  This sense of safety and security can allow you to go on with your other necessary developmental tasks like exploration, playing, having a general sense of contentment (versus, perhaps, having your developing nervous system being bombarded with the stress hormone cortisol).

One problem can come from when we do not get past the idealization.  We can find ourselves in a situation in which we are convinced that the person has some desired ability or attribute and they just are not cooperating. Perhaps we think they can be more gentle or more loving, but we just cannot get them to cooperate.

Instead of recognizing our parent as flawed (like all other human beings), we hold them to a standard to which they cannot arise.  Again, since the defenses are unconscious, we will not know that we are setting up this situation.  Instead, we are in a vicious cycle of hope, disappointment, anger, and sadness (not necessarily in that order, and not exclusively those emotions).  This cycle can last for years since we can tenaciously hold onto hope without ever consciously knowing we are doing so or without ever reevaluating the likelihood of the desired outcome.  Instead, we can hold onto it (unconsciously).  We can have a story-line running in the background without ever knowing we are wasting time and opportunities.  This defense (trick of the mind) can have important long-term consequences.

In the defense of displacement, we avoid conflict or difficult interactions with the person who is the actual subject of our feelings.  For example, we might be very upset with a disappointing parent, but a conscious awareness of that feeling is threatening.  I have literally had adults worry in my office that a difficult thought about a parent or partner would somehow (magically) injure or kill them.

Instead, of facing such a terrifying prospect, it is as if the mind substitutes a stunt-double.  In the movies, many movie stars are substituted by a stunt double.  ‘If we injure Matt Damon, we may not be able to complete the Bourne movie.  However, if we throw this stunt double off the roof, well…’  The unconscious mind makes a similar calculation.  If you unconsciously have difficult feelings about a loved one, it might be too threatening to experience.  Instead, it might feel safer to experience the intense feelings towards a stunt person (for example, a partner, spouse, child, sibling or other).

Here, again, the getting through the moment at the expense of the long-run is evident.  It can be terrifying to experience intensely negative feelings towards a loved one, ‘what if that kills them?’  On the other hand, displacing the feelings onto another allows for the feelings in a relationship that does not seem as high-stakes.  However, this also means that one is holding the wrong person accountable. While there may be no way for the primary relationship to meet idealized standards, the displaced relationship is even more doomed to be disappointing.  Moreover, now there are problems with more people, some of whom are not even actually involved.

Projection is a defense which serves a couple of important purposes.  The most obvious one is that it is a disavowal of suspected undesirable parts of the self and an attribution of those parts onto someone else.  ‘I’m not a racist/homophobe/undesirable, but that Uncle Bob!  Wow!!’

Another more subtle use of projection (or other externalization techniques) is to make an internal conflict into an interpersonal conflict.  We see this is couples all the time.  A person might want to be close but feel really uncomfortable with intimacy.  Experiencing that as an internal struggle is more difficult than taking one of those poles and attributing it to one’s partner.  “He’s so clingy.” or “He’s so distant.”  In either case, the problem is no longer a nauseating experience of inner turmoil.

Around the Holiday Table

For a quick summary:  we have cultural images of the idealized family gathering for the holidays.  On top of that, there seems to be a developmentally normative idealization of our parents and family members.  We tend to regress emotionally during the holidays, and we often unconsciously hold hopes for things that have never been resolved/fixed.

Putting these ideas together then, we can see that similar to how you might get more hungry when you are near food, for many people, the experience of unmet desires or perceived needs can become greater and more urgent as the holidays approach.  Sure things were fine in September, but now near the holidays, the feelings take on a new urgency and sometimes can barely be contained.  This is one reason we might get sloppy. (This is true for everyone else as well, many people have unresolved feelings about family, relationships or their past).

If individuals tend to experience their unmet desires/issues with a renewed intensity and urgency during the holidays, you can see how problems can begin.  Now add to that the fact that families are made up of individuals and those individuals have their own psychologies, often with their own unresolved issues.

Lastly, the American political situation has become so divisive that it is greatly exacerbating the difficulties families may already have had in trying to communicate.


Put all these factors together and we are looking at the potential for the perfect storm! (To be continued.)