Why do adults act like sullen teens when they're home for the holidays?

Self-help guru Kara Loewentheil weighs in on why the holidays sometimes bring out the worst in us

Published December 20, 2019 6:00PM (EST)

Angry sisters on Christmas sitting on a couch in the living room at home (Getty Images/Antonio Guillem)
Angry sisters on Christmas sitting on a couch in the living room at home (Getty Images/Antonio Guillem)

The holidays often have a magical effect on me, and not always in a good way. It seems like no matter how serene my intentions are, whenever I return to my teenage home to visit my parents, my high school personality (and attitude) is always waiting right there for me in my old bedroom, ready to be slipped back into like an old (goth) sweater. I know I’m not alone in this, so when I had the chance to interview the super-popular life coach and podcasting personality Kara Loewentheil for the latest episode of BUST’s "Poptarts" podcast, I knew I had to get her take on this Jekyll-and-Hyde phenomenon before our listeners’ next mass homeward migration.

Loewentheil has a B.A. from Yale and a J.D. from Harvard Law and she is one of the most beloved self-help gurus working in the podcasting space today. In the last three years since leaving her legal career behind, she’s grown her life coaching business from zero to seven figures. She’s the host of the iTunes top-rated self-help podcast "Unf*ck Your Brain," which has been downloaded more than 5 million times, and she has been featured in Marie Claire, Mind Body Green, MSN.com, The Huffington Post and more. But nonetheless, she shot a nervous glance at her own mom, who was sitting front-and-center at our live podcast taping, when I broached this topic.

“We are in the thick of the holiday season, a time when many people find themselves spending time at their homes of origin,” I began. “And no matter how much I meditate and come to know myself as a grown-ass woman, when I go back to my parents’ house, I’m immediately a pissed off teenager again and I did not ask to be born.”

“I hope you just come in like that,” Loewentheil interjected, laughing. “Like, ‘I’m home and I didn’t ask to be born!’”

“Yeah!” I continued. “I lay on my bed and I look at the stickers that I put on the ceiling and I feel bad for myself. I know that I’m not alone in having this weird regressive stuff happen when I go home. So how can we emotionally prepare and not be the dicks that perhaps we’ve been in the past?”

“I think the thing to understand about why that happens is that you have a neural circuit from back in the day that was very strong,” Loewentheil replied. “You spent six to eight years thinking about how you hated your parents and they ruined your life, from 12 to 18, right? We know that our brains get cued by certain kinds of triggers."

Studies show that listening to a certain piece of music while studying will help your brain recall the information, Loewentheil said. This is a similar phenomenon — being in familiar surroundings prompts the brain to recall those old feelings.

"You go home, you’re around your nuclear family, sometimes you’re in your childhood bedroom. And then you have those triggers that fire up your old thoughts," she said. "Number one, it’s important to understand that’s what’s happening—it’s not that your family is causing you to always feel terrible around them. It’s more like a memory or habit, like if you went skating after a long time, your body remembers how to do it.”

“In terms of preparing,” she continued, “I think that a lot of our pain and suffering as humans comes from just wanting reality to be different than what it is, and in relationships, it’s wanting people to be different from what they are. We all persist in doing that with people who we have known for literal decades, right? So we get ready to go home and we’re like, ‘Well, I just hope both of my parents have had total personality transplants since last time I saw them!’ Or, ‘I hope my brother has a totally different way of talking.’ We want them to be totally different people and then we’re all bent out of shape when they’re not. Meanwhile, we’re not usually totally different either.”

To manage the bent-out-of-shape responses, Loewentheil teaches a method she calls "Of Course They Did," which assumes that family members will continue to be who they always have been.

“If you stop emotionally resisting the fact that people are going to be exactly who they have always been, you would be amazed at how freeing that is, just to be in that space of being, like, ‘Oh, of course.’ They are going to be the way they usually are, and I’m going to have these thoughts and feelings that I usually do. We’re all going to be the way we usually are. Let’s just accept that reality," she said. "Once you accept that, then you can actually start changing the way you usually think and deciding ahead of time how you want to think and feel. Once you decide that, you can practice ahead of time.”

So, to use an example that might be pertinent now, how can progressive women prevent themselves from melting down when visiting homes where Fox News stays on and support for Trump is high?

“It all depends on what you’re thinking,” Loewentheil said. “If you’re thinking, ‘They shouldn’t watch this, they shouldn’t think this, I can’t believe they do, this is horrible, it means they don’t love me or care about me if they would support this person…’ you’re going to have a very intense emotional reaction. But if you can start at least with, ‘Of course they did,’ like, ‘Of course they’re listening to Fox News every time I go home,' then you can decide ahead of time how you want to think and feel about it. Your action may be to do nothing, or to leave the room, or to throw the TV out the window but feel really chill about it. It depends. People think that life coaches tell you what to do, but it’s the total opposite. I don’t know what you should do. I can just show you how to think on purpose and then you’ve got to figure out what makes sense to do once you have your thinking and your feeling in a place that feels good.”

For more pearls of wisdom from Kara Loewentheil, listen to the whole episode here or at bust.com/poptarts:

By Emily Rems

Emily Rems is managing editor of BUST magazine.

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