The Best Holiday Survival Guide: 4 Tips for Dealing with Skeletons in the Closet

By Dr. Nicole Cain ND, MA

The most common issue faced during the holidays and how to deal with it, according to experts.

Skeletons in the closet

Do you have relatives who tend to dwell on the past? If your family gatherings are hijacked by old arguments, past mistakes, hurts, disappointments, and resentments you may feel like you’re living in a time warp. I call these skeletons in the closet. What’s interesting, is that trauma-informed neuropsychology would agree with you.

As a person goes through their life, their brain is constantly logging away experiences and creating a sort of Rolodex in order to categorize what is good, bad, safe, and dangerous. Later in life, when the brain sees a cue, or something that is reminiscent of a stored event, thought or experience, it will activate that part of the brain.

But here’s the problem: Often times our experiences are stored in parts of the brain that are non-verbal, non-logical, and non-temporal.

Years ago, my husband and I got into a pretty intense argument. Emotions escalated and at one point he balled his fists and stomped his foot. His behavior reminded me of a child having a tantrum, which, for all intents and purposes he was. His face was scrunched up, and discolored, he was yelling irrationally, and no amount of logic or reason made any impact.

Later in therapy, we realized that something I had said had activated a trauma memory, which brought forth a 7-year-old part. This resulted in him being hijacked, as it were, and he had the emotional maturity and rationale of a child.

According to the research on trauma in the brain, we see that skeletons in the closet are actually very likely to be associated with past emotional states, which are called ego states. Depending on the age of that ego state – aka, how old you were when the original triggering event happened—you may not have access to your ability to verbally articulate your thoughts, your past self may not be as rational as you are now, and you may feel like you’re right back in the heart of the trauma, re-experiencing it again and again.

Here are 4 solutions if you are dealing with your own skeletons in the closet, or someone you love keeps slipping into the past:

1.  Do your own work

Understanding why you feel the way you feel, and identifying your triggers ahead of time will help you feel more in control and integrated when you are in environments and with people who tend to pull you into the past. My favorite therapeutic techniques for this are the clinically backed modalities EMDR and Ego State therapy.

2.  Learn to recognize the signs of ego state activation or trauma activation in others

Some signs that you’re not dealing with a person in the present with all of their present knowledge and resources include: Not having logical access to the present moment, stuck in emotions that seem incongruent with their normal baseline, rigidity or inflexibility to attempts to steer the conversation elsewhere, and intensity that does not reflect the reality of the present circumstances.

3.  Deescalate

There are 3 steps to de-escalation: Acknowledge, validate that they are entitled to feel all of the feelings, and then redirect to another topic or memory. For example: “I hear you, and I know {insert whatever it is that they are talking about} is/was very upsetting and painful. Around that similar time period, do you remember that fun trip we took to…

4.  Exit the situation

If your attempts at de-escalation are not being well received by your loved ones it might be time for you to remove yourself from the situation. This may mean going into another room to take a break, or actually leaving the premises. Knowing when to leave is not easy but is a significant part of protecting yourself and enforcing your personal boundaries.

We all have skeletons in the closet, things from our past that seem to come up time and time again.

My podcast co-host, Hadlee, and I created a two-part podcast series to help you create the most enjoyable holiday experience possible – for yourself and whoever you’re celebrating with!


Part 1 – Food, Sleep and Exercise

Part 2 – Family Dynamics, Old Patterns and Boundaries

This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Whenever considering changing your protocol whether it includes a change of medications, supplements, diet or lifestyle, always speak with your primary care physician first.

Dr. Nicole Cain is an advocate for empowering people around the world to help themselves via her educational free resources, online courses, and membership group. You can receive the tools you need to find the root cause of your symptoms and feel healthy again.