Dear Rocky Road,I love my family but I am dreading visiting them for the holidays. I have social anxiety and get overwhelmed easily and my family doesn’t seem to understand that sometimes I need my space. Do you have any ideas on how to navigate these issues during this very family-oriented time?Feeling Grinchy
There are two ways to think about your predicament: macro and micro. The macro view is that your difficulty stems from our living in an individualistic culture. In these cultures, of which the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, and Australia are prominent examples, our identities stem more from our individual traits and less from our collective ties. So your problem is basically baked in the cake of your culture.
Often cited pros of individualistic cultures are that they prize ingenuity and are more accepting of diversity. The cons are that they fail to protect the weak and reward greed. Individualistic cultures like to ignore the inconvenient truth that homo sapiens’ success as a species stems from its ability to form well-functioning tribes. By dividing up the labor necessary for survival, the tribe became stronger than its parts. Too much quibbling among tribesfolk would cause the band to dissolve, so evolution favored get-along genes. The result is that we are fighting millennia of natural selection when we isolate ourselves from the band.
So the macro view is that your modern individualistic brain is warring with your older collectivist brain, leaving you bound up in frustrated indecision. Uplifting, eh? Let’s look at the micro view.
This view focuses on your individual organism and how it was programmed, from a very young age, to respond to the world around it. Human babies enter the world completely dependent on their caregivers. Because of this, they must use every means available to them to ensure their survival. First and foremost is being cute. When this doesn’t work, they cry. Through some trial and error, baby and caregiver establish a language through which baby’s needs are generally met and baby moves through life feeling like the world is a safe and secure place.
When a baby or child doesn’t have its needs met, for whatever reason, the youngster develops coping strategies, including learning to suppress its needs. While this makes the youngster’s reality more manageable in the short term, the long term consequence is that it is disconnected from its needs. Its nervous system may perceive the very presence of need as threatening or alarming. In some cases, this is the root of social anxiety.
Adults with poorly wired nervous systems find themselves in the painful bind of being drawn toward human contact in theory, but being profoundly uncomfortable with it in reality. Because the family contributed to this faulty wiring, the distress the adult feels is most acute in its presence because it stirs up early memories of unfulfilled or unacknowledged needs. Actually, to call them memories isn’t accurate, because these earliest experiences aren’t stored as archival footage. They are more like reflexes that impel your body to react in a specific way under certain circumstances.
I don’t know your family so I don’t know if any of that resonates with you, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that if this situation is overwhelming for you to maneuver as an adult, it was probably excruciating to you as a child. The feeling that your family wants your physical presence but not any of your beautiful uniqueness can feel like a psychic erasure. That is not something you can simply push through.
My suggestion is that you try degrees of intervention. What if you pick one specific way to assert your need for some separation and see how they react? It could be better or worse than you imagined, but either way it can inform your decision-making going forward. The old aphorism that you can only change yourself is the best thing to keep in mind. Stay attuned to your body and the messages it is sending you. Notice the situations that cause you the greatest discomfort, and those that move you toward calm. Also, try to remember that the stakes aren’t really as high as they may feel. Back in our cave dwelling days, getting sideways with the tribe really was a death sentence. But today, even the most disastrous holiday gathering is unlikely to result in anyone being left in the cold to die.
Dear Rocky Road,The last time my closest childhood friend and I spoke, we got into a small argument over our opinions on a political issue that is very important to both of us. I didn’t think much of it, but as it has been at least a month since I have heard from her, I’m starting to get concerned that perhaps it was a bigger deal to her, and perhaps I said something insensitive that I don’t remember. For the last few years, we have been growing apart. We just don’t agree on a lot of the same things anymore and tend to run in different circles these days. I’ve been wondering if it’s time to let the friendship fade out, but the idea of letting someone go that I’ve been good friends with for so long really sucks. What are your thoughts?Missing a Friend
Maintaining a close childhood friendship into adulthood can be hard, but I think there is strong incentive to do so if that relationship was a positive one. The reason is this: those friends hold a part of you that no other person can. You will make many friends as you move through life, but you only have one shot at a childhood BFF. Because this relationship is unique, you should treat it differently. If politics strain the relationship, save those discussions for people who share your views. It’s easy to sever a relationship or let it die through neglect, and much harder to nurture it through all of life’s changes. But if you don’t, and I’m speaking from experience here, the loss will be something you will regret.
Katie Burford has worked as a social worker, journalist, university instructor, nanny and barista. These days, she’s a mom, professional ice cream maker and writer. Reach her at email@example.com, @rockyroadadvice (Twitter) or Rocky Road, 1021 Main Ave, Durango, CO 81301.