I’ve been quiet around the blog for a long time, but I’m hoping to write more in 2014.
Meanwhile, the holiday season has crept up on me yet again! As someone who wears a lot of different hats in my work life, this time of year always seems to be a rush of “Grades are due! Textbooks for next semester are due! Holiday crises are happening! Family has needs!” and suddenly I look around and my gifts are all in a pile under the sewing table, the cards are still stashed in a bin of craft supplies, and the “Days Until Christmas” calendar has been in single digits for quite a while.
The holidays are rough times for lots of people. Grief and loss, loneliness and depression, and the sense that “normal people enjoy this time of year” can make it hard to take the endless demands to get into the “holiday spirit.” Here’s some ideas for how to take care of yourself if you are finding yourself all out of cope:
- Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of slowing down and tuning into the present moment, rather than the past (ruminating) or the future (worrying). Mindfulness suggests that if we can be kind and friendly to our difficult and painful feelings, rather than trying to resist or change them, they will have less power over us. Mindfulness practices like R.A.I.N. (recognizing feelings, accepting their presence, investigating what they are trying to tell us, and non-identifying with them – getting a little distance from them, being an observer instead of drowning in them), body scans or progressive relaxation, meditation, etc., can help you get a little “breathing room” between yourself and the painful feelings that are threatening to take over your present experience. I recommend that everyone get themselves a present of “Comfortable with Uncertainty” by Pema Chodron – even if you are not Buddhist or have no intention of meditating, her writings on working with fear and pain may profoundly change your way of handling these emotions.
- Get some tools for dealing with difficult people. I really love the “Ask Captain Awkward” advice blog, particularly because they are very good at suggesting “scripts” for dealing with difficult interpersonal situations. For example:
- What should I say to other people if I don’t like to talk about my family and everyone is sharing holiday stories?
- How can I handle family gatherings that include a really obnoxious, opinionated, offensive person?
- My family treats me like crap and then expects me to pretend it never happened; what should I do?
- Holidays give me a terrible case of the “shoulds” and it makes me crazy!
I particularly like the Captain Awkward point, oft-repeated, that if people cross your boundaries even after you have politely asserted them (e.g. asked to change the subject, requested that people not talk about your weight, made it clear that you do not find racist jokes cute and funny, etc.), THEY are the ones making things awkward and expecting YOU to bear the consequences by not calling them on it.
- When tension arises in your intimate relationships, try your best to fight fairly and repair whatever damage gets caused. Emotions run high at the holidays – family members are thrown together willy-nilly, people are jet-lagged and sleeping in strange places, routines are disrupted, expectations for “the perfect celebration” put stress on even the most mellow. Tempers may erupt – dramatically, or in cold, detached anger. Toes get stepped on, literally and metaphorically.
- Do your best to avoid the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” identified by John Gottman’s research as the most hurtful behaviors when fighting: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and most importantly, contempt.
- When you start to get overwhelmed with emotion (or “flooded”), ask for a time out. Commit to returning to the issue at a specific time (in a few minutes, an hour, tomorrow after you’ve both gotten some sleep), and make sure what while you’re apart, you’re soothing yourself – thinking calming thoughts like “we’re working on this together” and “everyone is having a tough time right now,” rather than upsetting thoughts like “my partner is always such a JERK!”
- Practice accepting influence from the other person. Even if you don’t agree, find something you can say “you have a point” or “I can see how that would make sense” about. Try “let me think about what you’ve said just now” rather than the reflexive “NO!”
- Repair, repair, repair. We all use harsh words at times, or let problems build up, or blame others for things beyond their control. We intend something as a neutral comment but it comes off as a jab at the other person. We shriek when we should talk, or go “selectively deaf” when we should be paying attention. As a wise friend of mine once said “apologies are a down payment on making things right.” Even if you genuinely feel you were in the right, saying “I didn’t listen as well as I could have” or “I let my emotions get the better of me” tells the other person “I respect that you’re a human being with feelings.” When you get yourself that glass of iced tea while you take your time out, bring the other person one when you come back. Sometimes it’s the little things.
- It’s a cliche, but: work on your self-care.
- If things get stressful for you, call a crisis hotline. This link is for Alameda County in California, but it includes national resources as well. Many people think of hotlines as something you’d only use in a dire emergency, if you were suicidal, but in fact crisis counselors are trained to provide a friendly, supportive listening ear for whatever is stressing you out. If you find yourself thinking “if my mother comments on my weight one more time, I’m going to have to pull a table flip,” call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and lock yourself in the bathroom with your cell phone for a while, if that’s what it takes.
Just remember what Kate Bornstein says in her book “Hello, Cruel World“: