A New Approach to High Pressured and Stressful Holidays: Tips For Keeping Your Cool and Supporting Yourself During the Holidays
This blog is for folks who want to spend time with family this holiday season and be intentional about breaking intergenerational patterns of family emotional dysfunction. Picture this – you came to therapy with a particular goal, which could be anything from improving your relationships to switching careers or processing a bad breakup. In this process, you have done the brave work of being curious about and examining what is getting in the way of you reaching these goals.
You have learned that you had to abandon certain aspects of yourself to survive or thrive in the family system in which you were born. You have now changed the way you relate to yourself and others so that you feel more connection, trust, and vitality. Maybe you feel more at peace with certain emotions, which no longer overwhelm you. It’s also possible that your relationships have improved and you like yourself more. Or, maybe you are finding the old ways of being and relating to yourself and others have less of a hold over you. You have done some brave and hard work to get to this place.
Here come the holidays, when expectations and pressure to be and feel a certain way can be really high. You may be dreading the holidays or even strategizing on how to say no or limit time to make the experience more manageable for you.
Here’s the bind: you have done all this hard work and made improvements, and yet, you are about to be around the same family system and family members that created the issues. Who do you choose – yourself or the well-being of the family system? Without their awareness, folks unconsciously choose the well-being of the family system.
Why? It mainly involves ensuring your survival and preserving the emotional well-being of the family system. You are born into a system that largely dictates your role in your family and how you feel, think, and behave toward yourself, others, and the world. This happens on a visceral and subconscious level.
The family system needs you to feel, think, and act in a certain way to function. Therefore, when we “go back in,” like during the holidays, it can feel as if we have been hypnotized or are operating in a trance-like state. We find ourselves thinking, feeling, and behaving in old ways without permission. Often, folks will blame themselves when transfixed by this phenomenon. I’m here to tell you that it’s not your fault; you aren’t weak or flawed, and you haven’t undone the work you’ve put in. You are up against strong evolutionary and biological-based dynamics.
With a little knowledge, support, and a plan, you can come out of the holidays feeling intact, accomplished, and in control. If that’s too far of a stretch, you can make the holidays feel less difficult. Here are some ideas or areas of focus that can support you in your goals for this holiday season.
- Set an Intention. What do I most want for myself out of my interactions with family members? Try to go beyond behavior by checking in with your heart’s desire. Notice how you feel when you clarify an intention aligned with what you most want. I like to start with I give myself permission for more _____________. For example, I give myself permission to more of a sense of freedom.
- Choose Something Small and Repeat. You may have heard about the law of little things. Seemingly small things can have a big impact. Repeating these small things, over time, add up and can have a big impact. Plus, you probably aren’t going to change your entire family system during this visit. Set yourself up for success and choose something small and manageable. For example, I give myself permission for more freedom by visiting with a friend so that I can feel more light-hearted.
- Keep Focus on Yourself. Remember the hypnotic state that happens when we get together with family? In that state, you may believe the only way to be okay is by trying to change others’ behavior or ways of being. However, that is an impossible task, and taking it on might leave you feeling poorly about yourself. While we do not have the ability to change others’ behaviors or ways of being, we do have a choice in how we respond to others. To set yourself up for success, I suggest using If/Then statements. These types of statements help usprepare or rehearse how we can respond to others who are not aligned with the intention we’ve set,. For example, if I start to feel angry, then I will tell myself it’s okay to feel angry. If I feel guilty, I will remind myself of my intention. Ideally, these statements are compassionate and comforting, and help you align with your intention.
- Celebration. Taking on the family system and wanting something different for yourself can lead to cognitive and emotional confusing. It also doesn’t always feel great even though it’s the right thing for you. You are winning by bringing even a minimal amount of awareness and intention to yourself. Dr. Rick Hanson, psychologist and author of “Buddha’s Brain,” writes that “the mind is like Velcro for negative experiences, and Teflon for positive ones.”
No matter how things turn out, taking a few moments to celebrate or name 1-5 positive things (no matter how small) that occured can have a positive impact on your continued growth and well-being.
Hilleary Cummings, M.Ed., M.A., LCPC, LPCC
Hilleary is a psychotherapist in private practice, serving clients in Illinois and California. She is also a clinical supervisor and former Training Director at Centered Therapy Chicago.