As Jonelle nervously boarded the 747 that would take her home to Southern California for the Christmas holidays, she glanced around at her fellow passengers. How many of them, she wondered, were bringing home memories of loving families, and were anticipating a reenactment of the good times they had shared at past holidays?
And how many of them, she also wondered, were bound to be disappointed--again--as she was certain she would be?
Jonelle, now in her early 30s, moved from Orange County to New York eight years ago to try to carve a place for herself in the competitive arena of fashion design. She had done pretty well, becoming a valued assistant for a well-known designer, but somehow not as well as anyone in her family expected. And so coming home every year for a week at Christmas had become a trial. She wasn't prepared to graciously field what she was sure would be a constant stream of questions about her career and love life, or to handle what she saw as the petty quarrels so out of keeping with the holiday spirit.
This fictional scenario, based on the real-life cases of several Orange County psychologists, is familiar to family counselors. Going home for the holidays has become more of a chore than a celebration for many people, and the fault, psychologists generally agree, seems to lie largely in our high expectations of what the holidays and our families should do for us--including making us feel happy, loved and important.
"During the holidays," said Marsha Goodley, a Laguna Niguel clinical psychologist and stress management specialist, "our society tells us that we are supposed to feel happy, especially within the family context. Whenever we don't feel so marvelous, we come under a great deal of stress. When we--and other family members--bring that stress home, the potential for blow-ups is very great."
Ray Olson, a clinical psychologist with the South Coast Medical Center in South Laguna, said people see negative emotions as inappropriate at this time of year, so they cover them up rather than discuss them with someone who might be able to help. "That can be dangerous," he warned.
Seal Beach therapist Fern Rubin said people get into trouble when they try to turn the holidays into something they are not. "Many of us go home at this time of year with the idea--conscious or unconscious--of promoting ourselves," she said. "We want to 'be somebody.' The single biggest stress we face is the thought that we will have no impact on those we will meet.
"When you stop to think of it, isn't it ridiculous to take the sum of a whole life--all of our qualities, our talents, our accomplishments--and try to make an evening's statement about it?"
'I Am Very Successful'
Don (not his real name) agrees that that ambition is pretty silly. But somehow, that hasn't stopped the 34-year-old Anaheim dentist from trying to prove more than a thing or two about himself each year when he returns to his parents' home in an affluent Chicago suburb.
"When I see myself apart from my family, I have to admit that I am very successful," he said with a smile and a shrug. "I'm doing well professionally. I'm married to a beautiful woman who loves me and is a great mother to our two healthy boys. We live in a lovely home.
"But when I go home I'm still treated like the kid brother who can never quite catch up. (His brother is a cardiac surgeon, and his sister is a network television reporter.) "I find myself bragging and even embellishing on my actual accomplishments, trying to sound like a big shot. I know it sounds like a cliche, but all I want is a little respect. Is that asking too much?"
Unfortunately, it may well be, said therapist Ann Linthorst, who has a private counseling practice with the Institute of Metapsychiatry in Orange. "So often the things we want from our families are precisely what they are most unable to give us. Adult children want their parents to affirm them as separate, successful individuals in their own right. Parents want to be affirmed for a lifetime of giving and nurturing.
"It's like standing in front of a blind man and demanding that he see us and when he can't, taking it personally," she said, laughing. "That's wanting a lot, and we only suffer from what we want and don't want. But contrary to popular belief, the purpose of the holidays is not to get what we want, but to gather together to celebrate something about the larger good of life."
While Ray Olson suggested that sometimes it might be helpful for people to sit down with their families and, without leveling the finger of blame, point out what they see as problem areas, all of the therapists agreed that the holidays are hardly the time for familial confrontations. "Our feelings are running too high at this time of year," Olson said, "and that means we tend to see things more in blacks and whites. We may say things we will always regret, and we might not be forgiven for 'ruining' the holidays of others."