The only difference between sane people and mad people is that you haven’t really got to know the sane people all that well yet. Our families might be amongst the maddest people we know because they are the people we know best. And they know you best too.
A normal way of dealing with craziness is to disown it and assume it is the other who is at fault and not ourselves. I have certainly been guilty of believing I’m the sane one and thinking I’m being driven mad by those around me, as though the madness created between us has nothing to do with me and everything to do with them. So the first bit of advice on how to stay sane in the holidays is to own your own lunacy, without being tempted to dump all the craziness onto your relations.
If you really don’t like your family at all, then you are surely crazy to abide by the convention that you should spend time with them. Perhaps to opt for some “me time,” or join a group of congenial friends? Just don’t complain when you’re cut out of the will or you find yourself re-enacting your familial dysfunction with your friends.
But if you do want to spend time with your family despite the threat you make to each other’s state of mind, here is a holiday role-play game: The idea, without of course having any awareness of what you’re doing, is that you take on the role of either a victim, a rescuer or a persecutor. The Victim plays the role of being hard done by, then the Persecutor tells them off and the Rescuer tries to make everything all right. The Rescuer then becomes resentful that their efforts aren’t appreciated and they can then opt for playing the Victim or the Persecutor role, or even if they are very skilled, persecuting from the Victim position, the Persecutor gets fed up with being ineffective and becomes a Victim and the Rescuer explodes and becomes the Persecutor. You only need two people to play this game and you can have up to a house load of players and it’s suitable for all ages. The main thing is to be unaware of what you are all doing, blame all others for how you feel and add another layer of resentment every time you switch roles.
Here is a good example of how a game might play out:
Mother has a headache as she has being over-working to get everything nice for everyone. (rescuing)
She has taken to the sofa and is applying eau de cologne to her temples in a manner bound to get everyone’s attention. (victim)
Father rushes in to help by taking over the preparations for the meal. (rescuer)
Mother complains that he’s not “doing it right.” (persecutor)
Father throws down his apron. (victim)
Sister-in-law takes over dinner. (rescuer)
No one appreciates sister-in-law’s efforts and she starts to feel unhappy and gets a headache. (victim)
It’s a power game of blaming other people and not being responsible for your own responses. The winning position is Victim as it seems that however loudly the Persecutor may shout and however martyrish the Rescuer manages to be, the Victim holds the power. Maybe that’s something to do with how effective this role is in making everyone else seem guilty.
The content can be different but notice the process of what happens with the charged encounters in your own family and have fun telling everyone what role you are all taking which will possibly be a cunning way of adding another layer of persecution.
If you want to stop the game, your job is not to take the role you feel pushed into but instead to listen carefully to everyone and reflect back to them what you heard and asked them if you got it right. You don’t necessarily have to agree with what they said but reflecting back what you hear can calm a situation down, especially if you manage to keep that sarcastic tone out of your voice. Have a practice: “I see, you think I have parked the car very badly. Thank you for letting me know.”
Wasn’t that hard, was it?
Philippa Perry is a psychotherapist and a writer. Her latest book is “How to Stay Sane,” published by Picador.