NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

How to Cope With Getting Emotionally Triggered During Family Visits

In an earlier article,  How to Cope With Difficult Family Visits, I discussed coping strategies to deal with difficult family get-togethers.  In this article, I'm focusing specifically on how to cope with getting emotionally triggered during family visits (see my articles: Overcoming Dysfunctional Ways of Relating in Your FamilyRegressing to Feeling Like a Child Again During Family Visits and Learning to Develop Healthy Boundaries Within an Enmeshed Family).

How to Cope With Getting Emotionally Triggered During Family Visits

When there's a long history of dysfunction in a family, family visits can be fraught with problems, especially if you're not prepared for emotional triggers.

Have you ever wondered why you're able to overlook an unpleasant comment that an acquaintance makes, but if a family members makes the same comment, you have a different emotional reaction?

The answer is that you're not as emotionally invested with an acquaintance as you are with family members.  Also, there's probably not a long history between you and the acquaintance, whereas with your family, you've probably experienced similar problems.

Fictional Vignette:  Getting Emotionally Triggered During a Family Visit

Cindy loved her family, but she usually found going home for family visits difficult.

Whenever she went home, Cindy experienced her family and herself falling into old dysfunctional patterns that she disliked.

How to Cope With Getting Emotionally Triggered During Family Visits

Although she knew that her mother loved her, she often made comments about Cindy's weight, which was a longstanding sensitive issue for Cindy.

This was an old pattern with her mother, and no matter how many times Cindy told her mother that her comments weren't helpful, her mother would insist that she was "trying to be helpful."

There just seemed to be no getting through to her mother, and her mother's comments would usually lead to an argument between Cindy and her mother.

Her father, who knew that Cindy wasn't in a relationship, would usually ask Cindy, "So how's your love life going?"

Then, when Cindy told him that she was seeing anyone, he would express concern and ask her why she was dating anyone, which infuriated her.

Cindy's brother earned a lot of money as a corporate attorney, and he tended to look down on Cindy's job as a Legal Aid attorney.  He also made disparaging remarks about her salary and her clients, which annoyed Cindy.  She felt that he was trying to make her feel ashamed, and they would frequently argue.

After yet another family visit where Cindy argued with her mother, father and brother, Cindy decided to get help in therapy.

She knew that these were old familial patterns, and she wasn't going to change her family, but she hoped to change her own reactions to them (see my article: You Can't Change the Past, But You Can Change How the Past Affects You).

Over time, Cindy and her therapist worked on the underling issues that got triggered for Cindy when she went to see her family.

Using a combination of EMDR Therapy and Somatic Experiencing, they were able to gradually work through these triggers so they no longer affected her.

Cindy also learned how to set limits with her family in a gentle and tactful way.

The real test of what she accomplished in therapy occurred during her next family visit when, as usual, her family made the same remarks that usually triggered Cindy.

To her surprise, Cindy discovered that while she was disappointed that they were going down the same path as usual, she didn't have an emotional reaction.  Instead, she felt that these were their issues and they didn't concern her.

Suggestions on How to Cope With Getting Triggered During Family Visits
  • Be aware that whatever your family members might say or do, they don't define you.  They might have different opinions about what you "should" or "shouldn't" being doing.  But, as an adult, you get to make your own choices.
  • "Bookend" your visit with calls to supportive friends both before and after (and possibly during) your family visit so you don't feel alone.  Emotional support during a family visit can make all the difference.
  • Take breaks while you're with your family.  You don't have to be with them 24/7 during your visit.  If you plan breaks where you go out for a walk, it gives both them and you a break and a way to "reset" so you can regulate yourself emotionally.
  • Maintain appropriate boundaries with family members in a tactful manner so that if they attempt to cross a sensitive boundary with you, you can set limits with them.

Getting Help in Therapy
When you get emotionally triggered, this is usually a sign that you have unresolved emotional issues that need to get worked through (see my article:The Benefits of Psychotherapy and Expanding Your Window of Tolerance in Therapy to Overcome Emotional Problems).

Working with a skilled psychotherapist, you can work through these unresolved issues so that you're not constantly getting triggered by the same situations (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

If you find yourself continually getting triggered with your family, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to work through unresolved trauma so they are no longer triggered in familiar situations.  

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.