The holiday season is a stressful time of year. And this year is particularly difficult because of the strong feelings coming out of the election results and the seamingly opposite values of voters. We are seeing people struggling with their own anxiety, fear and depression about the election results and also worrying about facing family members who made different choices at the voting booth. How do we navigate family gatherings so that we don't end up fighting? And for some, can the relationship with certain family members be repaired?
A client came in last week, very upset at the thought of going home to L.A. for Thanksgiving. He explained that last month he had bought a thoughtful gift, an autographed copy of an athletic jersey, to give to his father at Thanksgiving to help mend their historically strained relationship. But the day before he heard from his sister that his dad voted for Trump. With tears in his eyes he said that not only did he not want to give him the gift, he now didn't feel comfortable going home for the holiday. Mike's strong feelings of anger, conflict and pain is just one example of what many people are feeling heading into an already challenging time of year: the holidays with family. (BTW: November and December are the most emotionally difficult months for people, despite what advertisers want you to think. I've often thought as a psychotherapist, that the kindest thing we could do for people is to skip over these two months and just head into January from October. Call it emotional health savings, similar to daylight savings, only to increase the length of our sanity every year!)
Here are four tips for navigating our anxiety about visiting with family so that we are authentic in our communication and build bridges rather than burn them down.
Feelings Aren't Facts. Caring for your feelings in a constructive way requires us to remember that just because an emotion is arising it doesn't mean that a) it's accurate to the here-and-now event, and b) meant to be acted on immediately if it is. As this wise AA slogan tells us, just because we are having very strong feelings post-election--angry, numb, fearful and anxious--doesn't mean that our family members are the cause of our feelings. Nor does making them the bullseye for our emotions solve the problem. We may feel momentarily better to yell or attack--the "bad" have been punished or corrected--but in the end relationships are strained and the strategy of change through fear-based communication gets reinforced.
Take an Emotional Inventory and Protect Yourself. In general, we do a lousy job of protecting our vulnerable feelings around family members. And when we don't we end up exposing them and feeling like others are trampling over them. Be honest with yourself about how you are feeling going into the holidays and protect your vulnerable feelings. Ask yourself the following questions: "On a scale of 1-10 how angry am I?" ....how fearful am I? ....how anxious am I? Anything above a 5 needs to be protected and avoided during family gatherings. What would that look like? Uncle Bill quotes a news announcer from a network we loath and we feel hot in the face. Instead of saying something and giving Uncle Bill controll of your angry feelings, redirect yourself so that your feelings don't rise to an uncontrollable level.
Ways to redirect from inflaming anger and anxiety:
- Stand up and walk to the bathroom and put cold water on your face and back of your neck. That helps the brain re-regulate and shift out of a stress response.
- Turn to a relative beside you and ask them a question about a topic of mutual interest.
- Look at someone in the room with whom you do feel understood and make eye contact with him or her. Research shows that making eye contact helps decrease anxiety and increase a feeling of being connected and safe.
Give Yourself the Power to Make It Meaningful. First give yourself the choice as to whether you go to a family event. If you're an adult you do get to decide! And if you do go, make it clear to yourself your reasons for attending. Then decide what you are going to focus on during the gathering that makes it meaningful to you, whether it's helping with the dishes, connecting with family members you do want to spend time with, getting to know the newest members, offering food to others, and when you notice a strong emotion arising, switch your focus to why you're there that's meaningful to you and take action. Go hang out in the children's room if it's important to you to connect with the younger generation, or if being of service is important, go help set the table, or if self-care is a priority and you're feeling claustrophobic, excuse yourself and take a walk around the block if that's what you need.
Communicate When Calm. If there is anything about yourself that is important to communicate to others wait until you are calm to do so. You and whomever you want to hear you, will only benefit. Our challenge is that anxiety and anger want us to act immediately, but that's only because the underlying feeling triggering anger and anxiety is fear. Fear's biological purpose is to resolve an eminent (less than a minute) danger NOW. The key for successful communication is to see that Uncle Bill's comments are not a eminent danger, even though our anger (and fear) is arising now. But actually now is not the right time (this is a time for family to be together and find common ground in a shared meal and activities), and anger/fear is not the right energy to use to resolve the problem of Bill's misunderstanding. Acting from our fear only makes our commication worse. Our fear triggers others' fear and the communication of important ideas gets lost in an emotional pinball game rather than a respectful exchange of ideas.
(Watch a video of one woman's journey to decrease her anxiety and create more calm and peace.)
The key to successfully navigating our communication this holiday season is to stay aware of our emotions, protect them from being enflamed by others, wait to act on them until you understand them better, and communicate important information only when you're calm and the listener is open to hearing what you have to say. The rest of the time, stay focused on the aspects of the holiday gathering that are meaningful to you and ignore the rest!
Learn more about working with difficult emotions in our blog series.