The holidays are soon approaching and can be a time of joy and a chance to reconnect with family and friends. But for many it can also be a time of stress due to strained relationships, unhappy memories of the past, too much to do and not enough time to rest. In addition there can also the feelings of disappointment or failure stemming from the expectation that our holidays should be “perfect ”like a Norman Rockwell painting or like we see in the movies. The good news is there are several tools we can use to manage the holidays and difficult relationships this year.
Awareness is first! Before the holidays begin, take time to think about what you would like to be different this year. Before we can make a change we need to become aware of what our goal is so we can set up a way to work toward it. Be as specific as possible and try not to judge what you would ideally like from your relationships. The list can also include what you do not want to happen. As you make these list tune into what your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations are. If thinking about visiting your in-laws makes your neck stiffen or if going to see your Aunt Jane makes you feel excited, write that down as well. Noticing all of these cues can help us create a plan that will increase our enjoyment of the season.
Become curious about your reactions. Now that you have made your list, become curious about what the positives and negatives are in the relationships you have examined. Asking yourself questions like “what exactly causes my neck to stiffen when think of visiting my in-laws?” can help with planning how to do something different. Tune into your feelings and notice what arises. Maybe you feel judged or criticized or maybe just disappointed because you have different expectations than those you are with at the time. Do certain people trigger negative reactions? Noticing will help you understand your unmet needs and negative feelings.
Examine your list and begin to plan. By examining the list we can begin to challenge our assumptions. This will give us information about just how important things are and if we are doing them because we feel we “should” or because we want to do them. It can also help us to see what we value and how we can use our values to help us navigate tricky situations. If we feel physically ill when we visit certain people or filled with dread before going, is it really necessary that we go. What would happen if we did not? If we feel we have to go, is there a way we could do it differently? One example is instead of going to a three hour dinner at Aunt Jane’s while trying to manage your 2 year old or getting drawn into a political debate, maybe we could stop in before dinner for a drink or go by for dessert. Resist the pressure to go on the guilt trip!
Plan for challenging situations! If we must visit people who we know will be challenging, we can plan ahead to change our reactions.
• If possible plan to get plenty of rest before you go. When we are depleted it is harder to deal with difficult people.
• Have an exit strategy when you have had enough and use it when you need to. Even if it is to go in another room and wash dishes it is better than remaining in a situation where you feel triggered.
• Take a breathing break. Head into a quiet place and take 10 breaths. Allowing for this pause will help us respond instead of reacting in a habitual way.
• Let everything (or everyone) be a teacher! Jon Kabat Zinn suggest that when we view everything as a lesson, we can distance ourselves from the situation and learn from our emotions, thoughts and physical reactions. Ask “what is my reaction to this person teaching me right now?” Maybe you are learning to be non-reactive, patient, compassionate or learning that it is time to be assertive. You might also see patterns that can be changed.

And finally reward yourself for your effort. Plan something fun to celebrate the steps you have taken to do something different this year!

For more information about this topic, join me for a free one hour workshop on November 21st at 6pm at my office or November 17th at 12 at the Brandywine YMCA. Contact me at (302)584-5521 or lizbrowncoaching@gmail.com for more information or to sign up.

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