During this time of year it seems that everyone is coming to their coaching and therapy sessions expressing anxiety about the holidays. Issues range from preoccupation about what racist uncle Joey might say, anger that mom just doesn't seem to understand how hard it is to travel across country with the whole family, and general rage at the idea that your daughter in law may actually boycott the holiday if you don't agree to make everything vegan.
The stories and quips I'm using here are all real and relatable things I've heard from clients, modified to protect everyone's identity of course. They're all wildly different but they seem to boil down to a single conflict that many experience this time of year: The push and pull between what we want and what everyone else is doing.
...And Don't Forget Family Dynamics
But wait. There's more.
Holiday specific issues aside, family dynamics can be really hard this time of year, especially if you've moved away and built your own life that exists separately from the people you grew up with. In your daily life maybe you've built an identity as a successful head of family with friends who respect your contribution to the community. But at home you may be reminded of an old outdated identity as "little sister" "family screw up" or "butt of every joke". And of course, no matter who you've become as an adult, your family only wants to know you as the person who crapped your pants at T-Ball when you were 6. Of course you love your family... Conceptually. But maybe everything they do and say and the way they breathe seem to trigger you. No matter how good your holiday ham is, you aren't going to have a good time if that's the world you're living in.
So with all of that in mind, let's talk about how you can reclaim the holidays as a joyful time instead of a time to gear up for a yearly emotional battle.
ACT to the Rescue
For those clients who are working through therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has a lot of helpful tools for reclaiming the holiday spirit. Through the lens of ACT, the question of "How do I manage the holidays?" comes back to the fundamental question of ACT: How can I live more deeply into my values without being knocked off course by difficult momentary thoughts, feelings, urges, memories, etc.?
In a lot of ways, the way we feel and behave during the holidays is akin to throwing a party for all of your friends and getting fixated on the one person you like the least who showed up uninvited. That's to say, there's a lot of wonderful stuff going on, but we get so wrapped up in the things that are bugging us, that we miss the boat entirely. When I work with clients on how to navigate the holidays, I always ask two pretty basic but pretty important questions:
1) What does this holiday mean to you? 2) What might make it difficult to live into that meaning? The answer to the first question helps the client to understand his/her values - those are the core ideals that we would love to live by if everything went the way we wanted and we got to be the best version of ourselves. The second question usually reveals a lot of emotions, beliefs, and memories that we get "hooked" by that cause us to act in a way that is totally in violation of our values. And when that happens, we become miserable and end up feeling like we wasted a lot of time, money, and vacation days. Think about this common example that I've heard about a dozen times this year. Me: What does this holiday mean to you? Client: It's about tradition and family and togetherness. Me: What make it hard to live into that meaning? Client: How long have you got? For starters, as soon as I walk in my mom is going to start bugging me about how I don't visit enough, which is infuriating when I'm clearly there visiting. Then my uncle is going to have too much to drink and start saying some really obnoxious things. And then they're going to start in on telling the same stories over and over again to try to get under my skin. Finally, they'll finish off with the story about the time I choked on the turkey bone when I was 10. Just like they do every year. And this will all be happen with (fill in your least favorite news programming) blaring in the background. Oh, and I'll be in Ohio.
Me: That sounds like a lot. I can't help but wonder why you'd walk into that if you know you're going to be miserable. Client: Because if I didn't go, the guilt trip would be worse.
Sound familiar? For this client (and maybe for you too), togetherness goes completely out the window as soon as he/she starts to recognize the pattern. In fact the client often gets into the pattern as they're sitting in my office. I can feel the anxiety and the anger being expressed through sighs and leg slaps and fidgeting long before they ever even step on the plane.
In these cases I often hear people predicting how everyone else will act and, while the predictions might be accurate, the only thing they seem to be predicting for sure is that they're going to find a way to be miserable. And to top it all off, if we really boiled the reason WHY this person is gearing up for misery, at least as described, the answer would be that it's all about avoiding guilt.
Holidays, at least as I understand them, are not meant to be gauntlets we endure so as not to feel guilty. But somehow this is what they've become for many of us.
Practical Tips for a Values- Based Holiday
In the example above, my clients are getting hooked by their emotions. Imagine a fish hook with a big juicy pile of anger wrapped up in the memories of holidays past. We don't want to take the bait but just can't seem to resist. And when the hook is set, we get dragged into doing all sorts of stupid things like drinking too much, avoiding the family, starting fights, or wallowing in self pity.
The ACT Model suggests several strategies. After you've answered those two questions above, you can do the following when things start to heat up: 1) Check in. Simply acknowledge your feelings. Notice if you're angry. Notice if you're uncomfortable. No judgment. You're human. You get to feel all of this. (Acceptance)
2) Decide if following that particular thought, emotion, etc. is going to bring you closer to the experience of tradition and togetherness or further away.
2a) If it is, by all means follow it. And if not,
2b) make a conscious decision that even though the sensation is uncomfortable, you will not allow it to make your next decision for you (DeFusion / Unhooking).
3) Look for opportunities to create the holiday you want. I promise you they exist.
Often while we're hiding and smoking cigarettes there's an opportunity to ask grandpa about why certain traditions were started. When we're fighting about politics, there's an opportunity to call a temporary truce and become curious about one another again. Often times when we're wrapped up up in our frustration about how everyone still sees us as children, there's an opportunity to teach our families about who we've become.
There's one more thing I should mention: This might not work for you. I've had clients tell me that this sounds like a lovely concept on paper but in reality, there is no good to be had. If that's the case, please consider creating a new tradition. In the example above my client has taken a big bite from another big hook - guilt.
It is 100% ok to go through this process before you ever leave home, to decide that the emotion of guilt is going to cause you to go somewhere that you don't feel has any opportunity to be the person you want to be, and to decide that you'd rather build a tradition of togetherness somewhere new than go be upset. The price you pay is guilt. I believe the tradition of Friendsgiving that's been emerging over the last several years is a testament to the fact that this way of thinking can work. Many people have successfully unhooked from guilt and decided to create a tradition that brings them closer to joy. You can do it too.
Playing Nice with Others
If you've read this far and you intend to try this out, I want to offer a gentle reminder that you can control you and no one else. I've had too many clients come back and tell me that the method didn't work because their family kept doing the dumb stuff that made them mad.
This is not a method for getting others to change. This is a method for finding peace and joy amidst your own discomfort.
So with that in mind, consider how you might unhook in the face of really difficult situations that violate other values. For example, I've got a pretty big problem with racist political misinformation. So I have to really ask myself a question: When that stuff comes up, as it always does, will this holiday be about family and togetherness or will it be about truth and social justice? Does it have to be both?
Understanding that my family held these beliefs before I arrived and will hold them after I leave, do I want to make this holiday about re educating them or am I willing to endure some discomfort so I can lean into trying to love them despite their views?
I can't answer that for you. And it might disgust you that I choose to drop the crusade for a few hours and let things slide when I'm with my family. But I know that when I choose to unhook from that rage, I am better able to connect. Ultimately, we all have a better time. That's what works for me. You decide what's best for you.
This stuff is messy and as any of my clients will tell you, it takes a lot of practice. But it works. ACT is less about solving problems and more about being with the inevitable difficulties and discomforts of life so that, at least if things do have to suck, the sucky stuff doesn't have to steal our fundamental right to joy and fulfillment. Whatever holidays you celebrate, I truly wish you joy and peace. They will ALWAYS be there for you to grab ahold of if you want them. And while you can't expect to change others, you might just find that those joyful feelings are an infectious gift to those around you. **Most of what I write is a stream of consciousness. Please forgive typos or let me know about them in the comments so I can correct.**