How to survive family at Christmas

The season of goodwill can also be a season of personal struggle, and a chance to understand why.

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The run up to Christmas brings a build up of family anxiety. The drizzly wind blows, the sparkling lights shine, and increasingly we feel guilty and irritated, regretful and wavering, about how to spend the break with our nearest and dearest. It can be the season of happiness and hopefulness. But it's surprising how tricky the festivities feel.

Why? Sometimes it's sadness, the remembrance of those who are departed. But much of the uncertainty has to do with a sense that there are no clear answers to the question of whom to spend Christmas with, what to do with them, and how best to fill the time? It's all so complicated.

The reason is that powerful dynamics of life and death are at play in such decisions. Forces deep in the psyche tug and toy with us as we contemplate those with whom our lives are most intimately connected. You feel them when there is no simple solution to whether it should be yours or your partner's family of origin who get the primetime on December 25th. They spring up when you daydream what it'll be like to be stranded back home without your usual occupations such as work. The TV or the bottle may provide consolation or distraction. But it's possible to understand something deeper about yourself during the season, and maybe find some resolution to the tensions.

The technique known as family constellations offers one way of looking at these issues which we experience as a puzzle, or block, or annoyance. Often unconscious, they arise because relationships of kin, and the environment in which our inner lives were formed, don't always flow well. There's the feeling I can't quite be myself with them at Christmas, or that I get caught up in a bundle of struggles that I sense aren't wholly my own.

A constellations workshop provides a chance to take a fresh look at these troubles - one that is complementary to other kinds of therapy and quest. It explores how each of us belongs to networks of other people, times and places, with whom our lives are bound, which we feel so keenly at Christmas.

To put it a little more technically, this is about our membership of a system - in this case, the family system. Things can become difficult or go wrong when our place in these systems becomes problematic for one reason or another - because of family secrets, traumatic events, unresolved injustices, relationship breakdowns. It's an aspect of our existence that is crucial and yet infrequently considered in our otherwise rather individual-focused times.

But the truth is we live in fields of psychic energy that affect us as much as the fields of electromagnetic energy which also surround us - the dark and twinkling light of the season. We exist in webs of feeling and meaning, for good or ill, that take tangible form when we buy presents, cook food, return home.

Christmas is an opportunity to consider how we respond to those with whom we are psychically and, over the holiday, physically close. Constellations can help.

Mark Vernon is holding a constellations workshop in London on Sunday 13th December. Full details online here.

Mark Vernon

Psychotherapist, teacher, author

Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist, writer and teacher. He's written books on friendship, love, wellbeing, belief, spirituality, and the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. His articles and reviews on religious, philosophical and ethical themes have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. He leads workshops and groups for professionals interested in exploring the dynamics of transformation and inner life, and also regularly contributes to radio programmes and discussions, notably on the BBC. He has degrees in physics, theology and a PhD in philosophy. His psychotherapy practice includes working with individuals privately, in family constellation workshops, and at the Maudsley hospital in south London.