Dealing With A Dinner From Hell

Written by Natalia Tarjanyi

As the founder of Centrd Life, I am passionate about sharing the benefits of embodiment with others. I want to offer people the tools to allow themselves to develop the capacity to feel all their emotions fully so they can connect to each other more deeply. I believe that embodiment is the tool that can change our disconnected world: by becoming more embodied we are more connected to ourselves, to each other and to nature.

13 Aug, 2022

I recently attended a very difficult family dinner. In many ways, I am still trying to make sense of the whole experience.

We all have to navigate challenging dynamics in our lives and most of them are related to loved ones, our families in particular. When you’ve known someone for a long time, the social mask we all wear comes off and our bad habits come out. Each relationship develops a certain dynamic that works for both participants; it may not be healthy but it works… until it doesn’t.

Let me give you an example: a couple gets together fairly young, they love to party, go out with friends, and drink together regularly but then they both start working. One of them is more interested in building their career; they are enjoying time at work and so don’t want to party over the weekends as much, as it interferes with their newly developed goals and performance. The other person wants to keep the relationship the way it has always been, as it’s been working for them, and they may find it upsetting that their partner seems like a different person now.

These dynamics are the unspoken rules of every relationship: the habits we develop together, the way we speak to each other, and the way we behave as a couple in front of others or behind closed doors.

We may never discuss these, but by participating in the behaviour, we agree to them. If one of the parties wants to change or tries a different behaviour, this can often create further conflict in the relationship. Many marriages end in divorce if this is not openly explored.

Going back to the dinner from hell… As soon as I was thrown back into this uncomfortable, but familiar, environment, I found myself acting like I did in my twenties. The part of me running the show was the young, agreeable girl who didn’t know how to speak up for herself.

Without going into painful details, the dinner included the following characters. These are archetypes that you may even recognise in your environment (as by participating in a dynamic, be that family, work or social groups, we all play a character):

  • The hostess, who when under pressure reaches for alcohol. Generally, alcohol is used as a coping tool to overcome potential difficulties in her life. Not good at speaking up for herself, lives in a very traditional relationship, in which she is valued for her looks and her cooking skills. Deep down she is resentful, and angry and after a few drinks, she becomes disagreeable and voices her bitterness and anger, but not in a constructive way.
  • The host, who knows everything better than anyone else. He pretends that his partner is not drunk but occasionally rolls his eyes and looks at his guests for support when his partner does something that he deems to be silly. During the conversation he needs to be the centre of attention, he complains about his children to his guests as if they were not sitting at the same table during the conversation. He still voices his outrage over the fact that his son and daughter-in-law got divorced without discussing it directly with him.
  • The Peter-Pan-like son, who at the age of 50 is still unable to take responsibility for his actions. His unpaid bills and parking fines are still covered by his resentful but enabling family. He blames his family and upbringing for not succeeding in life, he is depressed but never looks at how his behaviour may have contributed to it all. During dinner he is annoyed that the hostess (his Mum) is drunk, so he hits her where it hurts the most, and criticises her cooking (despite helping himself to more than one plate of her food). He contradicts the host (his father) on several occasions, taking his power back by correcting him every time he makes a factual mistake.
  • The rescuer, who wasn’t even invited to dinner, but decided to turn up and act like the saviour of the situation. This ‘wise’ outsider thinks she can smooth things out; she helps set the table and props up the hostess. This person has a history of enabling other people’s self-destructive behaviour; one of the roles they tend to play in their lives is of the rescuer. This resulted in many mini disasters during dinner, including the dropping of the main course when the rescuer was trying to take the dish out of the hands of the hostess, although nobody asked for her help.
  • The accidental family member, who slotted into this dynamic many years ago and now doesn’t see a way out. This is someone who married into the family when they were much younger and more agreeable. Coming from a similar family background they provided the rescuer role to Peter Pan and the Good Girl to the host and hostess. Peace is their main value, they used to do everything they could to smooth the situation, to make sure everybody is happy or at least not upset. However, this person has changed, quite a lot: she has managed to step out of the rescuer role, developed a lot of self-awareness and as she gained confidence and self-esteem, she started to become more disagreeable, not going along with everyone else’s opinion and most importantly, she stopped playing her role in the dynamic.

Where was I in all of this? I was screaming inside my head that I didn’t want to be there and had a superior feeling of ‘I see through it all’, but when it came to actions, I slotted right in as the pleasant guest, who pretends that whatever is happening is acceptable. 

Internalised social norms often stop us from doing what we really want to do. They also stop us from removing ourselves from situations we don’t want to be in. I have always been quite avoidant, and this dinner brought that up again. I felt like a twenty-something-year-old who wants to get away from it all but still does whatever she believes is expected of her. My feelings of superiority were of course completely unjustified; I did not behave like someone who studies and teaches this for a living, I just played along.  

Theory and practice are two very different things. We may be well versed in attachment styles and embodiment, but can we act according to our values, can we stop playing the role? Despite the years of  experience and professional training, I still face situations where I am challenged. It just shows that this work isn’t a quick fix, it’s a practice and one can always keep learning.

What to do when we have changed and some relationships don’t serve us anymore? One option is something that is often mentioned on social media: letting go, moving on, and leaving people behind. In my opinion that should be the last resort. 

What about learning how to express what you want? 

What about respecting the other person by giving them a chance to change the dynamic with you?  

What about explaining what it is that is not working for you anymore and why? 

What about learning to communicate that openly and with confidence? 

Wouldn’t that be empowering?

Just imagine, how would you feel if in a few months’ time you acquired the skills to change most of your existing relationship dynamics for the better? If we all spent a bit of time gaining self-awareness and forming our relationships with intention, the world could be a better place. 

The methods we can use are easy to learn, but they require willingness, commitment and practice:

  • The willingness to look inside yourself to gain the necessary self-awareness (We call this introspective exploration)
  • The commitment to yourself and to your relationships
  • Practice to develop the necessary skills

If you recognise any of the above characters, in your loved ones or in yourself, maybe it is time to change some of that. We are here to help you get from wherever you are now to where you want to be. 

Join us for a three months long exploration to learn these practical skills! 

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