About this time last year, I was traveling with my parents to visit my sister in the Bay Area when a familiar clench appeared in my stomach.
“Long-term Lot B,” my mother said, as my father drove us to the airport outside of Baltimore, Maryland. “Look for long-term Lot B.”
It was 4:30 in the morning, we hadn’t had coffee yet, and we had a plane to catch. The conditions were ripe for a bickering match. My mother had been repeating the name of the parking lot we needed to get to for ten minutes. Though in my early 30s, I felt like an irritated teenager. Old thoughts ran through my mind: She’s so anxious. Why can’t she be present? I need to grow up and not allow her to trigger me.
“I hear you,” I snapped.
Many of us struggle with being around family, and in particular, our parents. There can be moments of joy and connection, but family members seem to have the unique power to trigger us into old, less healthy behaviors. Whether intentional or not, they can push us back into patterns and identities we held as children and make us feel younger and smaller than who we’ve grown up to be. The Buddha himself said that a person with a hundred loved ones has a hundred sorrows, but a person with no loved ones has none.
When we’re triggered, freedom seems impossible to find.
In that moment driving to the airport, I was so caught up in irritation toward my mother and shame that I’d snapped at her that I wasn’t looking for the sign. Realizing this loosened me up a bit. I opened to the tension I was feeling, allowing it to expand into the rest of my body and dissolve. I felt the air from the car’s heater hitting my arms. I noticed my dad tapping the steering wheel. I remembered my mother had introduced the idea of a family trip to California, and felt appreciation that she had planned our itinerary. From her perspective, parking in “Long-term Lot B” was an important step on the journey. I also remembered that she’d spent the last few months shuffling her rapidly aging parents in and out of hospitals and nursing homes.
“I appreciate you setting all this up,” I said.
She didn’t respond, seemingly lost in paranoia about missing the lot, but I’d said what I wanted her to know. By mindfully noticing my feelings and surroundings, I was able to open to something more genuine, even if only for a few seconds. My shame of being triggered back into a younger, angrier part of myself had the opportunity to dissolve. A minute later she spotted the sign, and we began our next journey looking for “Bus terminal 3.” “Bus terminal 3.”
It may seem like having compassion for family members will make spending time with them easier, but one of the most important ingredients in making the best of that time is having compassion for yourself. Judging yourself for deep-rooted behaviors you have little control over only takes you further from the present moment. When we’re not present, we have less access to what we truly feel. Cultivating self-compassion won’t convince your uncle that his political views support white supremacy, or stop your grandmother from judging you for not going to church, but it will give you a little more freedom to choose how to engage with those who can so easily trigger you.
When we’re triggered, freedom seems impossible to find. “When we are stressed, our attention narrows and fixates, often into obsessive thinking, worry, and judgment,” writes psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach. Stuck in our head, we close off to the rest of our experience.
This closing off often shows up in the body as a clench in the stomach, shoulders, or hands as if we’re bracing for something bad coming around the corner. It’s fortunate that this physical clench so often happens. Without it, we might get lost in thought forever. The body is an anchor to the present moment that’s always available — a trail of bread of crumbs leading towards openness. If I hadn’t noticed when my stomach felt like a coiled snake, I probably wouldn’t have noticed my gratitude towards my mother. I would’ve stayed stuck, feeling like an angry teenager. After snapping, I could’ve gone down the rabbit hole of blaming myself and turning my reaction into further evidence that I’m a bad son who needs to grow up. I could’ve told myself I’m not where I should be when it comes to handling my emotions.
This is mindfulness at its best.
Despite its benefits, befriending myself has been easier said than done. Much of our relationship with our self is developed through childhood experiences, the trauma we’ve been through, and how society treats us based on our skin color, gender, sexuality, and wealth (or lack thereof). Many of us judge ourselves, particularly in relationship to others. I obsessively plan what I’ll say next, as if others won’t accept me unless I fix their problems, provide them some value, or come off in a certain way. I often ignore my emotions, repressing them so I don’t say how I really feel because doing so might cause conflict. I spend hours rehashing conversations, worrying that I hurt others or didn’t say enough to impress them. I’m often stuck in a noxious mix of self-blame, shame, and guilt, what Brach calls the “trance of unworthiness.”
If you’re spending the holidays with family this year, I invite you to try and notice when you’ve been pulled back into a role that feels younger and less wise. If you can muster the courage to do it, try to let go of the tendency to identify with that feeling. Take breaks. Breathe deeply and feel the sensations of your feet on the floor. Go for a walk and notice the sights and sounds. Do whatever you need to do to break the pattern and start fresh again.
The moments you speak and act from a fresh sense of vulnerability will mean much more to you and your family than the hours you spend acting out old patterns and beating yourself up inside about it.
This is mindfulness at its best —helping create a little bit more space and freedom to relate to yourself and others in ways that make you feel fully alive.