For many, the stress of the holidays is overwhelming. The anticipation of family gatherings alone can create anxious, tense, and uncomfortable responses. Then there are the personal expectations of gift giving, the lack of appropriate boundaries of friends, and the increased tension of an end-of-the-year work cycle.
Sorting through these conflicting thoughts and emotions can be difficult. Fortunately, Freud identified common coping strategies that many people utilize which he referred to as defense mechanisms. Here is a list of ten typical holiday defense mechanisms:
- Denial. At the top of the list is a concept of refusing to accept that anything is wrong or needs to be handled. Denial is very powerful because if something doesn’t exist then it doesn’t have to be addressed. A person may deny that anything is different after losing a family member, forbid discussion about touchy subjects, or reject a new person in their life that is displeasing.
- Regression. This is commonly seen when an adult child returns home for the holidays especially if the home is one they lived in at some point. Instead of acting like an adult, the adult child becomes child-like in front of their parents. An entirely different person may appear much to the surprise of a spouse or their own children. Trying to point out the change in behavior may be met with a child-like temper tantrum.
- Projection. Making accusations about another person that are really about the accuser is projecting. This is typically seen alongside addictive behavior. Addicts toss their issues onto others in order to divert attention away from their dysfunctional behavior. By pointing out and talking about another person’s drinking habits, the conversation and realization of their own drinking is sidetracked.
- Avoidance. Rather than deal with any of the stress of family, friends and work during the holidays, some avoid gatherings all together or attend very briefly and depart quickly. By making excuses for non-participation, issues are successfully evaded.
- Disassociation. From the view of another person, this might be a difficult one to identify. The disassociating person momentarily loses connection with reality, as if outside of their body. This is usually triggered by an anxious moment or a panic attack unnoticed by others. A person disassociates to avoid obvious outward anxiety as a self-protective device.
- Idealization. One of the easiest ways of coping with a difficult past is to think the holiday memories were better than they were. Idealizing is also referred to as historical revisionism. The brain blocks out difficult times and only remembers the positive because the past was too traumatic. This is commonly seen in abusive home and work environments.
- Introjection. This word is not commonly used in our vocabulary. Projection is putting things on another person; introjection is internalizing other’s comments. This can be particularly damaging when the statements are critical and the person then believes the remarks to be true, even when there is evidence to the contrary.
- Passive aggression. When another person sparks an angry emotion, a passive-aggressive remark is sometimes used instead of an aggression. This comes in the form of biting sarcasm, intentional prostration, and convenient forgetfulness. Sometimes negative comments are made behind the other person’s back.
- Somatization. This manifests through real physical symptoms which are actually rooted in a mental condition such as anxiety, depression, guilt, or anger. A person may have an intense upset stomach, not from the food, but rather from anxiety over seeing someone else they did not want to see. Because this is difficult to diagnose, the default should be that the symptoms are rooted in a physical issue before jumping to a mental issue.
- Wishful thinking. Believing that this holiday will be the best ever without any evidence to support it is wishful thinking. While at first this may seem to be a positive defense mechanism, it can be disastrous. The potential letdown from an unrealistic fantasy is like falling off a steep cliff and could take much longer to recover from than a more realistic viewpoint.
Learn to identify your own natural defense mechanisms before picking out others. This is more about understanding how stress is managed rather than finger pointing.