It happens every year. Though I make every effort possible to mentally and emotionally prepare to go home for the holidays to visit my family, I can never seem to keep the promises I make myself. I won鈥檛 be defensive if someone makes a critical remark to me, I tell myself on the five-hour ride from Minneapolis to my hometown in Wisconsin. If someone says something hurtful, I鈥檒l just ignore it, because I know who I am. My husband, admirably calm, assures me that things will go smoothly, but promises to stand up for me if someone says something upsetting. This trip home will be different, I tell myself. No one can hurt me. And then, someone does.

Like clockwork, we sit down at the dinner table, and within a few minutes, a well-meaning family member comments on how I鈥檝e gained weight or my kids don鈥檛 sleep through the night. And I lose it. Unable to appear unaffected, I leave the table as politely as I can and take some deep breaths in the guest bedroom. 鈥淎shley has always been so defensive,鈥 I hear someone mutter under their breath before nonchalantly moving on to the next topic of conversation. I want to go home. I don鈥檛 like who I am here. No, that鈥檚 not it; I don鈥檛 like how I feel.

Don鈥檛 get me wrong: I can usually handle criticism. In fact, as a writer, I pretty much live at the receiving end of remarks about my work. And I believe that, in general, when we鈥檙e open to hearing hard things, we can become better versions of ourselves. It鈥檚 part of growing. But there鈥檚 something painful 鈥 triggering 鈥 about the people who are supposed to see past our flaws pointing them out at the dinner table (and not just because those things aren鈥檛 exactly polite or enjoyable dinner conversation). For me, the most troubling part of these interactions with relatives is feeling like they all see me as the person I was a decade ago 鈥 like I鈥檝e been typecast as a version of myself I鈥檝e outgrown, and, therefore, am expected to fail in the same ways. It鈥檚 almost like I mentally lose control and revert back to childhood.

I鈥檒l admit it: 10 years ago, before I left home for college, I was defensive. But given the environment I grew up in, I probably didn鈥檛 have a choice. My mom (who died the year I graduated college) and I had always had a mercurial relationship, exacerbated by her addiction to prescription drugs and the emotional highs and lows that came with it. I remember my sophomore year of college she came to pick me up from college for Christmas, and, visibly strung out, spun off the icy highway. When I asked her calmly to let me out of the car, she lashed out at me, eventually dropping me off at a random rest stop in the middle of Wisconsin and leaving me there. Without knowing it, my mom programmed me to be hyper-vigilant. Because if she wasn鈥檛 going to protect me, I had to do it myself.

As a result of some of the things I experienced with my parents, I鈥檝e dealt with some pretty serious anxiety and OCD. But over the past 10 years, I鈥檝e worked really hard to overcome those things. Through a combination of medication, therapy, and healthy distance from my family of origin, I鈥檝e emotionally matured to the point of being able to forgive my family and healthily separate myself from the ways they鈥檝e hurt me. I鈥檝e grown up and away from my childhood trauma, and along the way, I鈥檝e built a family of my own. So why do I revert to this hard-hearted, defensive version of myself whenever I go home, like I鈥檓 a helpless kid again? Why, when I have the tools to remind myself how strong I am in the midst of anxiety, do I slide right back into it the second I step foot in a family member鈥檚 home?

Because trauma has a way of burrowing deep down inside of us and suddenly rearing its ugly head when we鈥檇 much rather sit and enjoy a peaceful family dinner. Because my body wants to protect me from any semblance of a threat it perceives, even if it鈥檚 my well-meaning grandma asking a simple question about how I parent my boys or why I wear my hair a certain way. Because the little girl inside of me, though she鈥檚 grown into a woman and a wife and a mother, remembers the pain of being asked to carry things that were too heavy for her.

I鈥檓 stronger now. I鈥檝e done the emotional heavy lifting of working through the pain of my childhood, and it鈥檚 probably healthy I live a few hundred miles away. When I鈥檓 not immersed in the landscape in which I was abused, I can focus on moving forward into the person I was always meant to become 鈥 a woman weathered by, but not defined by, pain.

Returning home and being reminded of my past may always be an emotional trigger, but my response, however dramatic, isn鈥檛 a failure or a reversion back to my childhood. It鈥檚 a reminder that something fierce inside me wants to protect me from pain, which, when I think about it, is actually a kind of beautiful thing. So instead of spending the car ride rehearsing calm responses to criticism or wearing myself out imagining difficult conversations, I want to revel in the hard work I鈥檝e done to become the person I am 鈥 a woman who wouldn鈥檛 be here without first having been the person she once was.

How do you deal with the emotional triggers that come with the holiday season? Connect with us @BritandCo.

(Photos via Win McNamee + iStock/Getty)