Holiday Sanity

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Happiness – It’s an inside job! Turn your dread into joy this holiday season

By Michele Wahlder


For some people, it’s easy to feel a sense of anticipatory joy about being with family members during the holiday season. Truly, it can be a wonderful opportunity to reconnect and bond on a deeper level.

There are many of us however, that have at least one family member we dread spending time with. For numerous reasons, we negatively anticipate being in their presence for even a nano-second. Perhaps you have a relative who drinks too much, one who criticizes your weight, one who is judgmental about how you raise your children, one who makes fun of you under the guise of “joking”. Possibly there is a sister or brother whose life is seemingly “perfect” – with spouse, kids and a great job while you are single, just barely making ends meet. Perhaps, your jealousy gets the best of you. Or, maybe another relative’s mere breathing irritates the heck out of you and you can’t figure out why.

Whatever your specific situation, the challenge is still the same. How do you maintain your peace of mind? Your dignity? Your poise? Realistically, you have four options:

#1. Change the person

Many of us have tried relentlessly and desperately, sometimes to our own detriment to change the person that bothers us.  We fall into a faulty fantasy that sounds like this, “If ________ would change, then I would be happy.”  So we work tirelessly to “fix” our person, knowing that all would be well, if only they were different.  It can be exhausting to spend time judging, controlling, and trying to manipulate this person to be as we think they should be, rather than accepting how they actually are. My personal experience with changing others is this:  IT DOES NOT WORK.   This subject could be a book unto itself, so let’s move on to #2. 

#2. Leave the person

You could choose to avoid the person and bow out of family holiday time altogether.  It is your option, no matter how much guilt others may load you down with.  If the person that bothers you continually exhibits unacceptable behavior or acts abusively and cruelly, you needn’t subject yourself to that.  Or, if you do decide to go and test out the situation, give yourself permission to leave at any time.

#3. Tolerate the person

Grin and bare it?  Why not?  Isn’t this what the family gatherings are about? J One of my clients sent me a notepad with the saying, “Put on your big girl panties and deal with it.”   This is what many of us do.  If you don’t want to cause a commotion and you feel the obligatory need to show up, this method is fondly referred to as, “White-Knuckling-It”.  It can make it more tolerable to be around your irritating person if you can give up the idea that “you know best” about how they are supposed to be behaving. 

#4. Change your perception of the person

It is the meaning that we assign to a person’s behavior that primarily impacts our feelings. Since changing our own behavior, thoughts, and perspective is the only thing we can really control, why not put our energy here?  When you feel yourself getting upset, before reacting, ask yourself, “How important is it?” Challenge yourself to take in whatever is happening at face value and refuse to dramatize it.  Is it important enough to sacrifice your serenity over?

Here are a few tips and strategies for holding onto yourself and taking charge of your perceptions and peace of mind during the holiday season and all year long!  My suggestion is that you pick one or two that resonate with you and practice them diligently.

Eight Sanity-Saving Tools

#1.  Designate an outside “life-line”

When we gather with our family of origin, we can easily regress into old childhood patterns. When this happens, we actually take on behaviors that we developed when we were young to cope in that environment. These behaviors are likely to be based in immaturities of the past and are typically incongruent with the person we have become.

Stay in contact with one trusted person that you can call when you are feeling “little and small” to remind you of your positive qualities, adult successes, job accomplishments, and inner triumphs. Ask this person to remind you that for today, it is your adult choice to be in this environment and that you are not a victim but a volunteer. You are not stuck and at any time you can choose differently and decide to leave.

#2.  Lower your expectations

Pain is the difference between what we expect and what we actually get.  With cultural ideals and advertising overloading us with mythical propaganda of the “perfect family”, anything less than that can feel like a failure or completely dysfunctional. Every family, I repeat, EVERY FAMILY has its own quirks, negative patterns, and idiosyncrasies. Give your family a break – expect everyone to continue being themselves, not the perfect family illusion you may have dreamed of or hoped for. Otherwise, this fantasy is a set-up that is certain to let you down every time.

#3.  Focus on the positive

This is another “inside job” tool. Make a list of everything you are grateful for each day over the holiday. Compare the person that is irritating to you to a pimple on your face. You can choose to focus on how ugly your facial eruption is and pick at it, making it worse.

Or, you can focus on the other beautiful aspects of your face and body. Recognize that your point of power is all about where you put your focus.

#4.  Engage in daily acts of kindness

Studies have shown that altruistic people are happy. Try going to sleep each evening thinking about what you can do the next day to put a smile on someone else’s face, maybe even a family member’s? This will shift your thinking away from your own problems and fears toward positive thoughts and deeds. It’s easy and everyone benefits!

#5.  Practice speaking responsibly

Refuse to spread gossip or speak negatively about any of your family members to other family members. You contribute to ill feelings when you talk badly about someone who is not present.   As Don Miguel Ruiz states in his book, “The Four Agreements” – “Your word is pure magic, and misuse of your word is black magic.”  Focus on what is good about each person – there is bound to be something!

#6.  Take control of your thoughts

When you find yourself obsessing about someone else’s behavior or attitude, you are giving them tremendous power and authority over your life. Who is controlling your life anyway - you or them? Refuse to let negative thoughts of someone else dominate your mind, creating painful emotions. Take control and repeat the affirmation: “I am responsible for my feelings, my actions, and my attitude.”  As William Shakespeare said, “Nothing is either good or bad.  It is thinking that makes it so.”  

#7.  Get physically active

Find time each day to participate in the exercise of your choice. Whether biking, walking, running, swimming etc., studies have proven that exercise can relieve depression, reduce anxiety, and create a tranquilizing effect that lasts for up to 4 hours after exercising – without drugs! You will also get time to yourself to process your thoughts and feelings – contributing to your overall mental and physical health.

#8. Lighten your mood

We cannot experience humor and feel depressed, anxious, or angry at the same time. When experiencing humor the other feelings dissolve. Think of things that make you laugh.

An example could be sorting through family photographs and writing funny captions or one-liners to go with your favorites. When you need a pick-me-up, pull out the album. Humor helps us change the way in which we perceive events.

By practicing these techniques, you can change your holiday season for the better and create a positive ripple effect that lasts all year long!   “Happy Holidays” are really possible, but it’s up to you to create that happiness.

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