Ari Sytner

It’s the Most Dysfunctional Time of the Year: Dealing with Family on the Holidays

Posted by in Parenting, Relationships & Marriage, Stress & Adversity

The holiday season evokes many joyous emotions and memories. Yet, research repeatedly demonstrates the increased levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

At the end of the day, when we gather among family, the experience for many is not one of joy, but dread. Sitting across the table from Grandma or Dad, and hearing a barrage of passive-aggressive questions just hurts.  

  • What ever happened to that last boyfriend, I liked him?
  • Are you still in that same job, I thought you have more potential than that?
  • Any plans for a New Year’s resolution to lose weight?
  • When are you going to give me some grandchildren?
  • Do you always let your kids speak to you that way?

The painful list goes on and on. How could it be that the very people who supposedly love us above all, are most critical? It always amazes me how well-adjusted, socially aware adults can be so clueless about the hurtful things they say to family around the holidays (or yearround in some cases).

If you are reading this and nodding your head, the good news is that you are not alone. This is a universal problem and you are in very good company. Unfortunately, however, we are not easily going to change how our families interact.

So what can we do to best handle these uncomfortable questions?

The first thing to keep in mind is boundaries. Some topics are either too personal or raw that they are just off limits, and its ok to clarify that to family right off the bat. 

But if we are to respond, there are essentially 4 choices.

  1. Avoidance
  2. Sit there and take it
  3. Engage in battle
  4. Disarm and connect

Avoidance is a miserable and lonely answer. If your family is truly toxic to you, where they are emotionally and verbally abusive, then avoid them. However, there is a difference between them being hurtful and being toxic. Most families are hurtful and dysfunctional, but not truly toxic, so give some thought as to how deeply they may affect you.

Option 2 is to sit there and take it, leaving you feeling pretty miserable about how your family treats you. That too, will just send you towards a bottomless pit of pain, and you don’t deserve to be mistreated like that.

The third option is to fight back. For some, this works well, as it creates conversations that are long overdue. However, it is often not without tears, yelling, screaming and using dangerously charged words like “you always” and “you never”. Furthermore, it comes with the risks of escalating a dysfunctional relationship to a non-functional one, where doors can be slammed permanently. That is something we always wish to avoid.

This is why I prefer the fourth option – disarm and connect.

Let’s look into the hearts and minds of our hurtful relatives. In most cases, they don’t ask these questions to be rude. Quite the opposite, in fact; they ask because they care about you. It stems from a place of them spending years nurturing your development and having lofty dreams and expectations of what your future would hold. Your very existence represents decades of investments that they have made in you. What they may fail to appreciate, is that you are now an adult, and their job is to be unconditionally supportive of wherever your life has taken you.

Knowing that their comments are coming from a good place of caring, concern and love, how can you translate them into a meaningful interaction?

Try using a simple question.

Instead of answering their query or getting into a debate, try holding up a mirror to them by asking if they could take you back and describe what it was like for them during that stage of life. This should not a cynical or snarky response, but a humble and genuine one.

Try empowering them to offer their buried wisdom and guidance from their own life-experiences. In other words, we want them to recall what it was like being in your stage of life. Perhaps by recalling their own challenges, instead of delivering barbs, they can give you the much-deserved support and unconditional love.

For example, suppose your mother says something like, “any plans to settle down and get married soon?” Your simple response can be, “it’s a tough world out there, but can you tell me some of the details about how you and dad met – maybe I can learn something”.

With a little extra humility, we can take the high road and be reminded that our seemingly obnoxious relatives are not actually trying to be hurtful, they just really care. Therefore, by redirecting the conversation, we can point them in the right direction of what family is supposed to offer – true caring and support.

So if dad asks how your startup business is going, but he uses air-quotes when saying the word startup – you can either get really annoyed, or just smile and ask for any tips from his own business experiences. You have nothing to lose by this approach and everything to gain. In the best case scenario, you will help take the relationship to a more mature and substantive level, increase the bonding, and who knows, maybe even learn something.

Family is forever. Enjoy and happy holidays!

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Is Religion Something to be Ashamed Of?

Posted by in Parenting, Relationships & Marriage, Stress & Adversity

Religion often gets a bad rap. We live in a world where moderate religious folks rarely make the headlines. It is the radical extremists that always seem to get the bulk of the attention, making the rest of us look bad.

With such a negative light cast on religion, why would anyone wish to be involved with faith or a religious community?

Even in the mental health arena, religious people have historically been viewed as “unwell”. Sigmund Freud himself established this fundamental belief in the field of psychology. After all, if a person truly was normal, healthy and well, why would they turn to some invisible, magical higher power to run their lives? This ultimately suggested that people of faith are somewhat crazy!

Yet, I recently surveyed a number of research articles that tackled this very notion as to what a life of religion means for one's wellbeing. Not surprisingly, the research shows that people of faith are actually far better off than Freud suspected.

When it comes to dealing with stressful and painful life-crises, people of faith are found to have a higher level of “stress-buffering”. This basically means they have a higher threshold for dealing with life’s challenges, particularly, those of high-intensity pain and trauma.

For example, when comparing the coping mechanisms of couples that have tragically lost a child, those who have strong religious beliefs have reported far better outcomes for coping and healing than those who do not.

Why might that be?

There are a number of explanations for this phenomenon. Some suggest that when a person has faith,faith community it gives them hope and optimism. Rather than falling into the grips of despair and depression, the person who has faith, can be carried through hardships, simply by holding on to the knowledge that they are not alone. They live with the comfort that they can be rescued by God from their darkness.  Furthermore, they find comfort knowing that everything in life happens for a purpose – even hardships which cannot always be understood. Their relationship to a higher being, also allows them to channel their feelings through prayer, which can be a meditative, cathartic and healing process.

Additionally, the research suggests that a person of faith is often connected to a religious community of like-minded people. Therefore, when a hardship may strike, they are supported by a church, synagogue, temple or mosque – filled with friends, family, and a community of people to help get them through difficult times.

On a family level, religious families report having higher rates of satisfaction in marriage, improved physical and sexual health, lower rates of divorce, domestic violence, suicide and substance abuse.

On a societal level, it is often through religious Soup-Kitchen-1communities that charity, philanthropy and social capital emerge. In other words, so many of the soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and educational initiatives are born in religious institutions, aimed at improving the world around us.

When I was a child, I recall that religion was something to almost feel embarrassed about. If I proudly wore a head-covering in my personal life, I might hesitate before wearing it at school or in the workplace for fear of being judged or discriminated against. Yet today, we have moved beyond those feelings. We have evolved to a greater level of tolerance and acceptance, where we can better support and respect the diverse religious needs of those around us.

Unfortunately, extremists of many varieties have hijacked the good name of religion. Too often, there is a stigma of irrationality, anger and fanaticism associated with religion, which may prompt many ordinary religious people to feel the need to conceal or subdue their religious lives. When those among us who are more "enlightened and progressive" look down upon the religious community as being antiquated and outdated, or as something we are just stuck with and must tolerate, it stands to push the many benfits of religion away. Yet, as a truly progressive society, it behooves us to turn to the successful models found within all faiths and religious communities and explore ways to learn from them and collectively support society around us.

There will always be extremists and religious fanatics who hog all the attention. Society, however, must rise above that, and keep in mind that those are the exceptions, and perhaps the ones that Freud was most concerned about for being emotionally or psychologically unsound.

While each religious community must maintain their distinct viewpoints and values, the common strengths and benefits that we share should be recognized and celebrated by all people.

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Facing the Fear of Falling: Overcoming Stress & Anxiety

Posted by in Stress & Adversity

It was time for the training-wheels to come off, literally. With his helmet fastened and standing next to his two-wheeler, my son had a mixture of pride and panic on his face. Like every parent that has done this before, I told my son, “just pedal, I’m holding on to the back of your seat so you won’t fall."

The logical part of his brain says, “you’ve got to be crazy to try this.” Yet, amazingly, the calming voice of a parent overpowers the grips of anxiety and stress. With just a little reminder of the parent’s hand holding the back of the bike, a child’s nerves will be soothed to the point where, even though they are afraid, they can trust that we will catch them if they fall.

As I have told many of my clients, “children are mirrors, which adults can look at to learn about themselves.” Whenever we face stress, anxiety or fear it is important to realize that is not just a silly feeling to ignore. Most often, the physiological responses (such as sweaty palms, shaky nerves and tightness in the chest) are rooted in something real – where the brain is telling us to be careful and avoid a situation, which is flagged for risk or danger.

Nevertheless, it is not realistic to stay in hiding and avoid uncomfortable circumstances. How then, can we move past those crippling feelings of angst?

For the child on the bike, their comfort comes from knowing that a parent’s hand is holding them upright. However, there is that singular moment when a child is pedaling furiously and turns around to see their parent in the distance, chasing behind with a big smile. That moment is filled with exhilaration and accomplishment. Yet, it is tinged with an element of intense fear. If the fear is given a voice – the child will panic and fall to the ground. However, if they just keep pedaling, the anxieties will quickly dissipate.

That moment represents a critical epiphany in the child’s development when he or she realizes abilities that were previously unknown. It is the moment when they understand that the parent’s support was only required to get them started. Now, however, they are free to shed the fear and enjoy life.

So too, with adults who are afraid to venture outside of their comfort zones and confront anxiety-inducing situations. A starting point, from which to embark is having faith. For some it will be faith in their own abilities, upbringing and education; while for others, it will be a rock solid faith in God.

If we could only see the hand that is holding firmly to the seat of our challenges, steadying and supporting us as we go – it reminds us to shed our fears and just go for it. Yet, it is important to be aware that once we step out of our comfort zone, a moment will arrive, and we look back to realize that we are going at it solo. That fearful moment presents two possible paths: It could be the child who, despite now being able to ride independently, just panics at the thought of being alone and consequently, falls of the bike. Or it could be one who stays focused and just keeps pedaling while enjoying the exhilaration they’ve earned through their accomplishments.

Whether that steadying hand belongs to a parent, friend or God, we should not be afraid to ever take a first step. For once we do so, even if we may fall at first, we can keep getting back up with their outstretched hand to aid us. Remember, the goal in achieving our own success, is not to take their hand with us everywhere we go. Rather, it is for the hand to set us free and proudly watch us sail through life, navigate the obstacles and utilize all the talents, skills and blessings that we have been given to fulfill our dreams.

To contact Ari Sytner for counseling, interventions or feedback, please click here.

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