Wednesday, 01 April 2009 10:02 - Ghosts of Christmas Past
Posted Nov 17 2009 10:01pm
Christmas can be a very strange time of year considering that it's supposed to be a celebration. Many people can get quite emotional at Christmas in a negative kind of way. I work a lot with young people in their 20s and 30s, and as a psychotherapist the post-Christmas season is often filled with people who have had emotional difficulties over the holiday season. Why is this?
I think there may be a number of reasons, but I think the bottom line is something that therapists call "spontaneous regression". Spontaneous regression is an emotional state that we can get into suddenly and without warning, where we begin to behave in a way that is less than our present age -- usually a lot younger. Spontaneous regression is perfectly natural; it's not a disease or pathology. For example you might spontaneously regress to a child-like state when you are buying toys in a toy store. I usually gravitate over to the train sets, I often get that "wouldn’t it be nice if I had one of those" feelings - kid-like feelings of excitement – because I loved trains as a child. In spontaneous regression we unconsciously move into an emotional state that harkens back to our childhood. It happens frequently in families when they get together after the children have left home, and even more frequently during the Christmas season.
These spontaneous regressions are triggered by certain things that we see, hear, taste, or smell -- particularly the latter. Smells and odours go directly to a part of our brain called the limbic system that has to do with emotion. If you are an adult and you imagine going back to visit your parents for Christmas there are many things that can trigger memories and feelings from the past. Have you ever felt as though you have stepped back into the past when you enter into your parent's home -- all of a sudden you are overwhelmed by feelings that you haven't felt for a long time? That is a spontaneous regression. Now there wouldn't be any problem with this, if we recognized it consciously and could move out of that place of feeling a bit like a child and back into our adult state. However, there are so many of these anchors around – smells, sites, and sounds of the past -- that sometimes we can get stuck and we actually begin behaving as though we were still a child. This can be a problem if parents insist on still acting like parents, thus closing the loop and setting in motion a parent/child interaction that may be unhealthy. (It can also be perfectly healthy and fun too -- but we usually move through those easily!) People can get locked into those negative states fairly easily. But why does it happen at Christmas time? I suspect because there is so much expectation tied up in the season -- expectations of extra love and attention through gifts and food that may not actually satisfy. An unsatisfied child does not a pleasant experience make! Whatever the reason, people tend to get kind of emotional and sensitive at Christmas time, often setting off unwanted family dynamics that can be a painful reminiscence. If you now have a family of your own and you don't go home any more for Christmas to your family of origin, then it is quite likely that your own children will bring up those past emotions at the unconscious level.
So here is something that you can do before you set off for those holidays that previously may have been difficult. First of all, you need to recognize that you are responsible for your own emotional states – positive or negative. You create those states through the representation you make in your mind of that "outside reality". That being said, the good news is that you can change an unresourceful state to a resourceful state. If you have found in the past, for example, that walking through the door to your parent’s home gives you that strange mixed feeling of warmth and uneasiness, here is an exercise you can practice so that you can feel different. You just have to use your imagination.
1. In a comfortable chair, just momentarily imagine that point in time when you first begin to feel that uneasy feeling that you would like to change. Then quickly clear your mind and think about, or look at, something neutral.
2. Now imagine for a moment a memory of feeling really alive, confident, and happy with yourself as an adult – a feeling a well-being. It doesn't have to be a big thing, just one of those moments when you felt that way. Just allow yourself to experience that feeling of inside confidence, noticing what you are thinking about and visualizing it in your mind as clearly as you can. What would people be saying to you to let you know that you are feeling that way? Hear them say it now in your mind. Notice how you feel inside as you access that emotional well-being.
3. As you do that, and the feeling of confidence and well-being rises to a peak, just go ahead and touch something on your body such as a piece of jewellery that you always wear, or perhaps press your thumb and forefinger together, or even just touch your ear lobe or squeeze a finger, and associate that touch with the feeling now. This is called your anchor. Now let go of that anchor just before the feeling reaches its peak.
4. Now just look around the room for a moment. Get up and take a break if you like.
5. Now coming back to your chair, just think about going into your parent’s home, smelling that turkey, or whatever it is that used to trigger those uneasy feelings around Christmas. As you think about that, and as you may begin to get that uneasy feeling, just touch that anchor that you chose and notice that you feel confident in "yourself as an adult". In fact, you can probably even walk yourself through the whole experience of Christmas feeling that feeling of confidence and pleasure.
6. Repeat steps 1-5 at least 3-4 times, to embed this new state firmly in your unconscious mind.
7. You have just learned how to anchor a pleasant state to what was a negative trigger. You can use that anchor any time you want to generate a feeling of confidence and just being yourself. That way you don't have to be at the effect of all those people around you this Christmas season, and you can really celebrate who you are as a person, so that you can truly give the only gift that there really is -- the gift of love and who you are.