December is the festive time of year when you can enjoy Christmas parties with friends, feeling good about yourself. But as soon as you step through the front door of your parents’ house for Christmas, your sense of self may suddenly feel dimmer.
In my consulting room, I often hear my clients criticising themselves for their feelings towards their family members: ‘I shouldn’t feel this way’, ‘I sound awful’, ‘I’m bad for having these feelings’. I say to my clients criticising themselves is like wearing an ill-fitted Christmas jumper, one that is too small, too tight, too old, they have to contort their body to make themselves fit in it. It is painful.
When I invite my clients to put their self-critics aside, the ‘inner-censor’ comes off, and they talk openly:
‘My brother thinks he’s better than me because he brought a grandchild to my mother’
‘Everybody thinks I should be with a partner by now’
‘My mother can’t look at me in the eyes’
‘My father never asks questions about my life’
‘My sister doesn’t believe in equal marriage’
‘My 10 year old nephew used the word gay to describe something broken and nobody challenged him.’
After speaking uncensored, my clients report a sense of relief because they allowed themselves to be truthful and honest about their family. It feels so good to talk about family without wearing an ill-fitted jumper.
We are told that Christmas is supposed to be family time. But, often, families provide a rugged terrain that even tinsel can’t hide.
Picture: Silva Neves
Families have a knack to push our buttons, trigger some anger and resentment and even hurt us deeply. With some families, the hurt can be overt: clumsy homophobic comments. And in some families, the hurt can be subtle: the dreaded silence of no acknowledgement that you love and go to bed with people of the same sex.
Some small comments passed around at the Christmas dinner table unchallenged might appear like nothing. Or the silence may feel unimportant to us. As gay people, we learnt to ‘take it on the chin, not make a big fuss of it and move on’, we learnt from a young age to put on that ill-fitted Christmas jumper and make ourselves fit in it despite our own discomfort.
Why do we keep wearing that old jumper? Because it awakens something deeper in us: the fear of inhalation.
A lot of us will have childhood memories of not feeling ‘normal’ when we first discover that we have a crush on boys rather than girls at school. We try to hide it. We learn early on how to mould ourselves into being somebody we are not so that we can be accepted. The jumper is a survival mechanism, even if you have a well-meaning family.
I invite you to take a moment to decide which jumper you are going to wear this Christmas. The one your family knitted for you or your own one?
Wearing your own jumper at Christmas is a courageous act: it means to be truly seen and heard, just as you are.
I’d like you to consider some language that will help you hold on to your truth: gently and politely challenge family’s comments that fall in the wrong places for you, even if you think the comments are well-meaning:
‘I know you spend a lot of time talking to my brother because he gave you a grandchild, and I have something important that I want you to know about my life too.’
‘Yes, I am still single, and I’m happy with it, are you?’
‘Using the word gay to describe something broken is inappropriate. I am gay and not broken.’
‘I don’t spend my time clubbing, I also work, sleep, eat, like all other human beings.’
Many of my clients feel anxious to adopt a new language. They say: ‘I don’t want to bring conflicts’, ‘It’s too confrontational’. I respond: making statements of truth is not about being defensive or confrontational, it is about offering information about yourself, in an assertive way. Pay attention to the delivery of those statements: if you have an open body language, a calm voice and maintain eye contact, you will sound assertive and it is more likely family members can hear you.
Unfortunately, some of us have families that are just not good enough. Sometimes, deciding to wear your own jumper may mean to make the courageous decision to decline the Christmas dinner invitation.
We have our family of origin, and we have our family of choice, which can be made up of friends, like-minded people, people who make us feel comfortable, loved and nurtured.
We are told that Christmas is family time. But I think Christmas is a time to spend with people that bring us joy, warmth and love, may they be blood-relations or not.
Wherever you choose to spend Christmas this year, give yourself the gift to wear your own Christmas jumper.