There are two types of people: those who enjoy the annual Christmas family gathering and those who don’t. For some people, Christmas with the family is more like a nightmare than a joyous reunion.
Unfortunately, we don’t all get along with every member of our family. Sometimes there’s outright hostility, but more often than not, it’s just an underlying, unspoken tension. What can you do? Often alcohol is used to numb the uncomfortable feelings and jollify, but it can cause more problems than it fixes because it loosens tongues, dissolves the polite civility and unshackles the underlying resentments.
The type of drama that ensues depends upon the family dynamics. At one end of the spectrum, everyone yells at each other and it feels like World War III has broken out. Another scenario resembles a schoolyard bully beating up the sensitive kids, or what’s more socially acceptable is the sensitive ‘victims’ passive-aggressively doing the ‘beating up’ through control and conversational minefields.
One of the problems, I feel, is that many families don’t know how to communicate. Indeed many people don’t know how they feel, who they are or what they need to communicate about. So the dynamics between siblings can be stuck in childhood behaviour patterns that aren’t appropriate for healthy adults who would otherwise be loving and compassionate towards each other.
The million dollar question is, how can you change this? How can you avoid slotting back into that toxic rut?
Jordan accidentally stumbled upon the answer last winter, when he travelled to Scotland to spend time with his family over the Christmas period. In London, Jordan attends one of my monthly men’s personal development groups. So, while in Scotland, he decided to try out one of my online men’s groups and his big unexpected Christmas gift was the knock-on effect it had on his family.
“I get quite down in the winter months and last year I was away in Scotland with my older siblings and their partners. The cold, dark and unspoken tension between us had me feeling cut off and isolated. I find it difficult to talk to them about how I feel, so I joined Kenny’s online group one evening. It was such a relief to open up and share my feelings, and to find that I’m not alone in struggling with my emotions over the holidays.”
“After the group I returned to my family and explained where I’d been. To my surprise it opened up conversations with a new depth and we began to bond in a way we hadn’t before. The rest of the time away was much easier to deal with.”
Often, we don’t talk to our family about deeper issues because we find it difficult to start the conversation. It may feel awkward to raise the subject just out of the blue, so we put it off until a more appropriate time, but that time never seems to arrive.
Explaining to his family that he’d just attended an online men’s group turned out to be the perfect, little conversation starter.
His family asked him what a men’s group was and what goes on in one. Jordan explained that it’s a group of up to eight men plus a facilitator, who meet to talk honestly about what’s happening in their lives. They speak about subjects that they wouldn’t normally talk to people about, such as their true hopes and dreams, feelings and fears. They don’t ‘appropriately’ lie with the standard “I’m fine”, they have the self awareness to know how they are and the courage to either celebrate it, or change it.
When his family reacted with surprise that men would actually expose their truth and vulnerability in that way, he explained that it’s actually liberating and empowering to relate in this way.
He finds it liberating because he’s no longer a prisoner to his secret fears and fantasies. By speaking openly about his fears, their weight has been lessened and there’s more space in his life to feel free.
He went on to explain that participating in a men’s group was empowering in many ways:
- For starters, he was now taking charge of his emotional life and actively doing something to build his inner strength and resilience. Previously he’d built his physical muscles at the gym, but that hadn’t improved his day to day experience of life. The inner work he was doing at the men’s group had a much more positive impact on his enjoyment of life.
- Having heard other men’s experiences, he now understood that many men have struggled with similar issues. He previously thought that there was something wrong with him, but now he knows that his issues are quite common with other men. That awareness has made him feel much better about himself.
- Hearing about how other men had successfully dealt with similar issues opened up new possibilities for him. He didn’t have to figure everything out for himself. He didn’t need to re-invent the wheel. He was becoming a wiser man by learning from the collective wisdom of the men in the group.
- The group provides him with a safe space where he can try out and practice new ways of expressing himself. If he wants to become more assertive or more open, then he can practice doing that in the group, and gain sufficient feedback to then take what works out into his world and be his more authentic self.
Men’s groups are a place to learn and grow, a place to stretch, a place to explore new territory and conquer old fears. A place to hang out and laugh too, together, rather than at the scapegoat.
Jordan’s family were curious about the men’s groups. They asked questions and he answered them, and that naturally led him into talking about the specific issues that had been troubling him. Because he had grown used to talking about these issues in his men’s group, he was now comfortable talking about them with his family. The relaxed and open way that he spoke, created an environment where his family also felt comfortable to open up and share. He discovered that members of his family had struggled, or were currently struggling with similar issues.
As a result of this one conversation, the family dynamics changed. The old, narrow, rigid patterns of communication had been broken and replaced with a deeper, more empathetic way of being with each other. It was much more than Jordan had expected.
Jordan could have attended the online men’s group and not told his family about it – he could have said he was his room reading a book. But this was the sort of moment for which the men’s groups had prepared him. He had lots of practise at being open and honest in the men’s groups and only good had come of it, therefore he could assume that if he was open and honest with his family that the goodness could spread. He was right.
The role of men in our modern society is changing. We are gradually being allowed to be real men. Not the old-fashioned, “I’m fine”, fake “real men” that had to disconnect from their emotions, but the sort of real men that have the courage to be honest and vulnerable. The sort of real men that are brave enough to admit to and grow from their inner struggles, wise enough to learn how to overcome them and strong enough to follow through and successfully live a happy, authentic life.
If you’d like some advice and company on your journey to becoming a real “real” man then you can join a MenSpeak Men’s Group online from anywhere in the world or in person in London.