THAT Time of the Year
Certain holidays and anniversaries tend to trigger emotional memories, and can make people who suffer from Personality Disorders more susceptible to riding the emotional elevator.
These events and occasions can include:
- Holiday Triggers, such as Birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, and Religious Holidays.
- Anniversary Triggers, such as Wedding anniversaries, engagement anniversaries, deaths, divorce and other events of major emotional significance.
- Trauma memory triggers, such as accidents and breakups.
- Emotional Memory Triggers, such as visits to old locations; visits with distant family or friends; hearing old music from an emotional time; seeing old movies; eating certain foods that are associated with the past; viewing old photographs & videos; and any other sights, sounds, tastes and smells that bring back emotional memories of the past and trigger an emotional response.
Why it Happens
When we remember something, our minds store not just the events, hard facts and data but also the emotions - the way we felt - when we stored that memory.
Therefore, when we recall old memories, we recall not only the facts, we also evoke the way we felt at the time we stored that memory - and we feel those feelings again.
This helps explain why some bad memories are painful and why some good memories make us feel great. In our minds, we are recreating some of those feelings again.
For this reason, some people who suffer from Personality Disorders struggle with emotional regulation and are particularly susceptible to extreme mood swings when triggered by emotional events and anniversaries.
What it Looks Like
- A mother invites her grown child’s family for Christmas dinner and then becomes hostile when they arrive.
- A man becomes suddenly gloomy and sarcastic when a certain song plays on the radio.
- A wife gives her husband the silent treatment on their wedding anniversary although he has done nothing to deserve it.
- A father forbids his children to talk about their loved, deceased grandparent.
What it feels like
When a person with a Personality Disorder is triggered by an emotional memory it can be frightening and confusing for those close to them. You may ask yourself: “What did I say or do that caused him/her to react like that?” Alternately, you may find yourself becoming hostile if the person starts to treat you badly because of how they feel. This hostility can lead to increased conflict.
How to Cope with Holiday Triggers
Many Nons struggle in the run up to holidays (such as Christmas) and anniversaries, because they expect the Personality Disordered person/s in their family may take the opportunity to act out. Many Nons feel a sense of FOG, or even complete dread, and are torn between the discomfort of being around triggered Personality-Disordered people, and the potential consequences of refusing to join the (un)happy crew.
What NOT to do
- Don’t blame yourself for the way another person treats you.
- Don’t try to measure up to an unrealistic standard of what your family should be and try to plough ahead with holiday plans as though nothing is wrong. Wishing will not make it true.
- Don’t put yourself in a position where you have to spend an entire weekend or an entire day with a disordered relative at the holidays.
- Don’t allow yourself to become isolated in a dysfunctional environment.
What TO do
- Plan any holiday visits with a limited time and a safe exit.
- On holiday visits, consider staying at a hotel rather than at home with a dysfunctional family member – then you can leave easily if things get ugly.
- Remember that holidays are just another day. What makes them different is just the emotion that people attach to them. Therefore there is no obligation for you to protect yourself any less.
- Figure out what you really want to do on special holidays and anniversaries and give yourself permission to do that. In a healthy environment, your priorities should not take a back seat to anyone else’s.
Some Additional Tips for Nons on Surviving the Christmas Holidays:
Severely limit the time spent one-on-one with any personality-disordered relative, friend or loved-one. Know going in that their already limited stress management skills will be pushed to the max. Sometimes a big group can be a really good thing - you can get lost in the crowd! Set your own limit on certain visits - spend double the travel time with them, share a meal, then go home.
Understand that some things are inevitable - the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. You've seen holiday "performances" before: Someone will have a meltdown. Someone will get their feelings hurt. Someone will be feeling lonely or left out and need extra hugs. Someone will do whatever it takes to bring everyone's attention back to THEM. Someone will be a complete and utter pain. And sometimes it's all one person, all at the same time.
Drive or have your own transportation to events where that certain someone will be in attendance. Understand you can and should leave if you can’t handle it any longer - don’t be anyone’s punching bag or doormat just for the sake of “keeping the peace.” Go to them instead of having them come to you - then you can leave when you want to instead of trying to figure out how to get them out of your house!
Make sure you know when and where you’re supposed to be and allow yourself plenty of time to get ready. If you’re rushed, you’ll be stressed. If you’re stressed, tempers will flare. And someone will feed on that.
Sleep. Eat as normally as possible. Limit or eliminate alcohol intake. Hug your spouse, children, pets and real friends. Share the true joys of the season.