Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s,
Eid-al-Adha, Lunar New Year, St. Lucias Day, Bodhi Day, Hogmanay,
St. Nicholas Day, Las Posadas, Japanese New Year, Diwali…
Just to note some of the traditional holidays celebrated around the world. And some questions arise, for me, around this season and the “heaviness” that so often seems to accompany it for so many people. Growing up, the holidays–particularly Christmas for my family–was a time of joy and celebration. And while we seem to keep striving for this now, it seems that the holidays have become somewhat “bogged down” with… something else.
The following is based on an In Service that I provided for Noeticus Counseling Center and Training Institute. I thought that some of the concepts might be helpful for others as well. I’d love to hear what you think!
1. Why is the season so difficult for so many?
2. How can we approach and engage with Mindfulness, Self-Care, & utilize the Holidays as a time for “re-wiring” relationships and family dynamics?
3. How might we model these skills to family and friends?
1) Why is the season so difficult for so many?
The holiday season brings with it some heightened excitement and feelings of togetherness when we share time with family and friends whom we don’t often see. And for many, this same season can bring increased anxiety, depression, overwhelm, and a sense of isolation. Why is it that this “wonderful time of year” is consistently fraught with such significant distress?
(However, on that note, the idea that suicide rates are highest during the holidays is a myth perpetuated by many).
Holidays are significant—for most, anyway. People often have an idea of what the holidays are “supposed to look like,” (often due to what we see represented in media and the annual “family photos” on greeting cards) so the reality can feel disheartening and contribute to feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.
Holidays are connected to childhood memories that are more significant than other “everyday occurrences.” Our emotional memories become very connected to those significant times and can be easily triggered. So they are often more related to intense emotions, unsatisfactory family dynamics, unresolved family issues, painful memories, and childhood traumas than other times of the year.
Because the deeper emotional connections to holidays are coupled with the added stress of busy-ness, shopping, travel, financial concerns, hosting others in our homes, and numerous obligations to family and friends; the months from November through January are sometimes approached as something to simply “get through,” rather than a time of nourishment, connection, and joyfulness.
2) How can we approach and engage with Mindfulness and Self-Care; and utilize the Holidays as a time for “re-wiring” relationships and family dynamics:
- Prepare to be triggered:
If you plan for at least some of the inevitable distress that the holidays can bring, you are more apt to be able to remember to access your inner resources and self-soothe when troubling emotions arise.
Take some time prior to spending time with family to consider how historical family dynamics have played out and how you might envision yourself in a more desirable role within your family system. Also, recognize that family systems don’t change automatically and will usually take significant practice. The holidays can be an ideal time to nurture the types of relationships with your family members that feel healthy and appropriate for you now. Practice being flexible and going with the flow!
If your holiday time will not be spent with family, take time to nurture the relationships that contribute to healthy social connections and community in your adult life. Prepare ahead of time to engage authentically, so that if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re able acknowledge your need to take care of yourself.
- Listen to your body:
Take time each day, or each hour if necessary, to “check in” with your body. Pay attention to the depth and rhythm of your breathing, track sensations in your body that can inform you of increased stress, anxiety or “collapse”—those times when you feel yourself falling into some oblivion of a patterned powerlessness within your family system. Notice your pacing, your tone of voice, your thought content… and take time to remind yourself that it’s difficult to alter family dynamics and there’s a good chance that your body will respond to stress before you recognize those responses cognitively.
Allow your body to remind you when it’s time to take some space for yourself, when it might be time to connect with someone whose caring behavior resonates with you; and when it might be time, even, to jump in to the swing of your unique family dynamics!
While most of our family of origin dynamics, as well as many of our adult relationships, are not “ideal,” the people in our lives often love and care for us, even if they don’t express it exactly how we’d like. During more stressful times, including the holidays, we can be so caught up in other things, that appreciating what people DO, and their unique way of “giving” can be difficult. When “perfect” doesn’t show up, we can close ourselves off to any and all nourishment from our relationships. Remind yourself to receive what your loved ones are offering, however they’re offering—and take it in!
For example, growing up, my Dad wasn’t one to say “I love you,” and of course that was the one thing I craved hearing from him more than anything! What he did, however, was show up on my doorstep at least once a week, when I was in college, to bring me fresh fruits and vegetables from his garden. It was his way, so it became my practice to receive his underlying intention. Notice and accept other’s unique ways of reaching out to you in loving, nurturing ways.
- Find the humor:
When we can become a little more objective about the particular “dysfunction” of our own families, it can be helpful to see some humor in how we’ve all learned to “be” in the world.
Some reality TV shows have given us glimpses of how diverse some family dynamics are—and on a TV screen, some of that diversity can be incredibly humorous! Sometimes it’s funny simply because we realize our own families aren’t as weird as we originally thought. And sometimes, it’s just comforting to see that others aren’t so “picture perfect” either.
Isn’t it crazy to consider some of the bizarre ways that our families have chosen to exist in the world? And while we don’t want to dismiss obviously painful or hurtful events or dynamics, for other things, it can be helpful to step back and see some of the quirky foundations of our lives with a bit of humor.
- Practice self-care:
Even though you’re more than likely strapped for time and have loads more on your plate during the holidays, be sure that you are continuing to practice the things that nourish your body and soul.
Exercise—make sure you’re actively moving your body every day. Allow some of the stress and anxiety you may be experiencing to be expressed through engaging your body. Do something with your body that feels refreshing and can help you reconnect to YOU.
Eat healthy—remember that healthy food not only nourishes your body, it nourishes your mind, which houses your emotions and provides the foundation for your skill in relationship. Balance some of the “sweet treats” of the holidays—which can cause physical distress—with eating whole, raw, nourishing foods. Be sure you’re getting adequate macronutrients, including healthy, lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats.
Sleep—getting adequate sleep is essential for maintaining our emotional resources and practicing new relational skills. Our brains and our bodies need rest! Use the holidays as a reminder to rest and refresh yourself each day.
Take time to simply “be”—during stressful times, it’s so useful to take purposeful breaks from all the “doing” to just “be.” This could be a perfect season to get into—or back to—a meditation practice. Maybe try some walking meditation or simply remind yourself to sit, breathe, and let go of all the thoughts running through your mind.
Connect to people—take time to nurture those relationships that truly nourish you. Trust your instincts when it comes to wanting to spend quality time with certain individuals more than others. Notice what resonates and how differently you feel in the presence of certain people.
- Practice re-wiring:
Even when we’re all grown up, it can be incredibly easy to fall into early relational patterns when we’re with our families. Practice skills such as asking for what you need, acknowledging what you feel, becoming curious—rather than just “knowing”—about a family member or friend.
Remember that giving the benefit of the doubt and finding the understandable part, can be powerful tools when attempting to rewire relational dynamics. And just as important are standing up for yourself and validating your own views and opinions without putting down the views and opinions of others.
Family dynamics can sometimes trigger us into forgetting how to take care of ourselves. Learn to use your “no.” And remember that “no” is an essential skill in healthy relational dynamics!
Guilt and obligation were foundational teachings for so many of us but research shows that rarely do they provide any true benefit to relationships, nor to an individual’s sense of personal power. Get clear on what feels “in integrity” to you. And then own it!
Sometimes our histories have painful emotions based on, not only reality, but on our perception of reality. When we were children, our perceptions were subject to the family and dynamics in which we developed. As adults, however, we begin to develop a more flexible perception when we practice awareness, empathy, and objectivity.
When we can begin to view some of our past family dynamics with new eyes—new awareness—we may surprise ourselves by naturally releasing some of the hurt or anger, simply by reframing what happened “then” with a different, and more objective, “meaning” now.
3) How Might We Model These Skills to Our Family & Friends?
One of the greatest blessings of relationship, as we all know, is the potential for feeling as if we are “a part of a greater whole.” And part of deepening those experiences is showing up, not only as people strengthening our own skills, but as “good enough” human beings, just being with the people we love. And human beings are sometimes messy, and we are far from perfect, and we have histories that harbor a certain amount of hurt. When the people closest to us gain some understanding that we are working toward healthier relational dynamics and practicing more evolved behaviors than the ones we were originally taught, it can provide incredible benefit for others to experience the challenge of meeting us where we are. And when we can be gentle with ourselves when we don’t practice all of our skills perfectly, we also are more able to have an accepting and gentle attitude toward those around us.
When others realize that we are consistently working to become the people we want to become within our own family systems as well as with others in our lives—and that our work is a “practice,” they can anchor that knowing into their own developing sense of self, reminding themselves, even when they are in the midst of family drama, that they are not alone in their efforts—that their own personal work is connected to a collective effort for personal and relational growth.
Our own personal work has such a positive correlation to the spiral of energy that begins within and ultimately circles out to the greater collective.
Our practice of skills, such as self-care, boundaries, the use of humor, reframing, receiving and, of course, mindfulness—all of these skills, used within our relationships with family and friends—is what is used to “raise the bar” in all of our relationships, and ultimately strengthens the foundation for helping us all to evolve into more relational and helpful human beings.
Many Blessings to us all during this Holiday Season!
For further reading about Surviving the Holidays, check out this link on the Noeticus Counseling Center and Training Institute website:
For a story about appreciating and rewiring family dynamics, follow this link:
For the Love of Your Life!