In the Land of Triggers (Merry Christmas🌟)
Finding the gift wrapped in holiday drama.
If I’m being honest, I don’t always look forward to the holidays. I don’t know about your family, but in mine the holidays can be treacherous. They just won’t pass without a little bit of drama. Sometimes it gets loud, but more often people withdraw and avoid whatever triggered a storm of uncomfortable emotions. But the tension lingers.
Christmas is the perfect setup: a few days loaded with expectations, rituals that have lost their meaning, everything drenched in nostalgia. Every December I trek from New York to Frankfurt, take the train to Bremen to see my grandparents, followed by a second trip all the way down South to my hometown Tübingen. Christmas itself is split between my father’s and mother’s homes. And just like everybody else, I carry an invisible backpack stuffed with my life’s drama. On the one hand, I look forward to a rare moment with the people most dear to me. On the other hand, I know that I’m walking into a minefield of triggers, ready to pass the torch of holiday trauma from one generation to the next.
Ok, maybe I’m getting a little dramatic. But by noon of the 24th, I’m already desperate for long walks among the trees, meditation, a workout, really anything to get personal space, release tension, and reflect on triggers. A few hours later, I’m back at the table. We play cards, eat Plätzchen, laugh, and ponder why the holidays turn out to be so complicated.
What strange magic happens once we’re around family? We’re confronted with our past, we get a glimpse of our future, we dive into our deepest wells of conflicting emotions. Love, gratitude, and the desire to be seen, heard, and appreciated all co-exist with frustration, anger, sadness, shame. We start shifting between new and old identities, we slip back into roles and behaviors we thought we’d long abandoned. The ghosts of childhood wounds haunt the dinner table.
I think we trigger each by our very nature, not on purpose (ok, sometimes on purpose). Just like an insult only touches us if we spot a kernel of truth in it, family drama is intense because we see aspects of ourselves reflected in the other. Family ‘rubs your nose’ in the struggles of your life by showing you its iterations. If my mother struggles to let go of things, I see in this my own challenges, my own stacks of books, my own clutching and clasping.
Family is a mirror. Family throws a spotlight on what we’d rather avoid.
But here’s the kicker. If you do it right, family drama is a portal.
Let me give you a few examples of what I’ve run into over the past week. Your topics may be very different, but you get the point.
Fear of old age, death, and what it means to have dignity once body and mind inevitably deteriorate (what is a dignified death? what if we’re not granted one?)
The resistance to letting go, both of items and the intangible (memories, past injuries, people/relationships, habits)
Courage — to be yourself, to change, to start something new — and how we cheat the world when we hold back out of fear and don’t share our skills, knowledge, talents, time, and creativity
The yearning to have children and how it conflicts with many other desires and goals
Fear, death, love, desire, envy, healthy and unhealthy romance, addiction, generational trauma — it’s often all there, in some shape or form. And for the holidays, it all comes together. And we’re not supposed to get a little emotional?
Here’s the little protocol I’ve been working with when things get :
Step one: change state. Find some personal space, calm down the nervous system, get out of fight-or-flight mode. Tricky since there’s often little time and limited options. What helps me: walks, exercise, nature, calming breathing exercises (4-7-8, box breath, humming bee breath), meditation, naps/yoga nidra, music, talking to friends.
Step two: accept, unpack, reflect. Start by accepting and feeling into whatever came up. Peel back the layers of the onion. Why did this bother me? When exactly did it come up? What was said or done and what happened next — what memory or thought came up? Where in your body did you feel it?
Keep excavating and asking why. Look for the emotion behind the emotion. Maybe there is anger behind the numbness, and sadness behind the anger, and fear behind the sadness. The first emotion may just be a trailhead to lead you to what you’re avoiding. What helps me: being in motion/walking, conversation, journaling, meditation. Once you’re calm and have more clarity, it’s probably time to rejoin the others.
Step three: rejoin, take action. The most difficult one. Now what? What is this situation trying to teach me? Does this call for a conversation now or is it better to be patient, let things settle? Am I supposed to change or let it go? Is this something I need to tackle by myself or something to resolve together?
The gift of Christmas
Christmas Day started with a low boil, escalated into yelling followed by weeping, and, finally, hugs. It turned out to be a magical moment of truth and connection. Working through drama allowed us to be seen, to share our deep wounds and fears.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: this was uncomfortable and exhausting. It was work. But it unveiled the greatest gift we could have asked for: deeper connection and love for each other.
Holidays offer an opportunity to learn about ourselves and our family and rediscover quirks and imperfections. There’s no guarantee that we leave with the gift of love, growth, and understanding. If we face our triggers, if we muster the courage to share, if we listen with patience, if we draw on our compassion, well, there’s a chance we can turn the drama and pain into something precious. It’s a chance worth taking.
My mother called Christmas a celebration of light and noted that for the light to break through the clouds, the storm needs to pass. That’s certainly true for Christmas in my family.
Here’s to forging stronger bonds in the fires of discomfort, pain, shame, and fear.
Here’s to forgiveness, sharing, and acceptance.
Here’s to the gift of love.
Reach over and hug the people closest to you. Let them trigger you while they still can.