There are so many great things about the holiday season, and for many folks that includes spending time with family. For some, that particular part of the puzzle is more complicated than just straight-up joy. There may be a variety of reasons for that complexity, but I guarantee that if there’s baggage there, there are also stories.
A friend of mine likes to say that one of the reasons that our family is so good at pushing our buttons is that they are the ones who helped sew them on in the first place. Our families of origin are co-creators in some of our worst stories. The negative things we tell ourselves are sometimes just echoes of things we were told as kids. The negative ideas we have about relatives may have been formed on the basis of one particularly bad interaction, or a pattern that held 20, 30, 40 years ago. Those stories don’t age well. Our stories get more entrenched the longer we let them stick around, and our ability to see evidence that suggests that we’re wrong diminishes over time.
So there’s the holiday dilemma for many people. There are still these stories about who we are, about who they are, about the way “we” do things, and then we’re all supposed to get together and have the best time we’ve had all year, which I’d like to point out, is also a story.
Here’s the thing. All of that stuff is optional. All of it, from the bottom to the top. Getting together with your family is optional – and I hear all of you saying: “but you don’t understand, you don’t know my family. I could never get away with that because….” Yeah. Optional. You can choose not to participate. Might there be consequences? Yes, but it’s still optional. And the way those consequences impact you? Also optional. But I realize that kettle of fish might be too big to consider just this minute.
Let’s assume that you still want to get together with your family, just without so much tension or anxiety or whatever form your holiday complexity takes. You can totally choose to do that. It may take some practice, but it is totally do-able.
First you’re going to need to become a keen observer – not of what everyone else is doing wrong or saying wrong or being rude about – but of what’s going on in your own head and how it impacts your heart. You need to notice what you are thinking about these people and about yourself. You need to notice what assumptions you are making. You need to notice how you are interpreting what they say (even when you have tons of evidence from the past that points to your interpretation being absolute truth). You need to notice what you are thinking that is hurting you. Examples of family stories you might want to pay special attention to: your “role” in the family, how you’ve “always” gotten along or not gotten along with so and so, the way so and so REALLY feels about you, anything you need to prove to anyone, your level of responsibility for the happiness of others – am I hitting anything for you yet?
Here’s the secret about this first step: even if this is all you do differently, it will still help SO MUCH. When you become an observer of your thoughts and feelings, you are far less likely to get caught up in them and react/act impulsively/co-create drama. When you become that observer (the watcher), you give yourself a little emotional distance and it becomes infinitely easier to allow multiple interpretations, to see other perspectives, and to simply allow other people to be wrong, rude, or hurtful without it having to mean anything to you personally. Watch yourself with curiosity and compassion and your family gathering will be a whole different ball game. Notice how things change. Notice the amount of personal power there is in how you respond and react (or don’t).
If you want to take it a bit further, you’ll need to acknowledge that the things that you are thinking may not be actual facts. They may be opinions and you could be wrong. They may be assumptions that you’ve been making for years. They may be someone else’s garbage that you’ve decided to lug around. If you’re like me the idea of just being wrong doesn’t really help, but it sure does when I realize that means I get to decide to think and feel something different. I’ve talked a lot about this thought changing business, but it’s rarely as transformative as it can be when we decide to take on our family stories, those carefully sewn on buttons.
So what can you do once you’ve decided that maybe the things you are thinking aren’t serving you? How do you think something different? You choose and practice new thoughts.
And here’s where you think I’m going to hand you a bunch of really sunshiney affirmations – no worries on that front – like, at all. When you choose to believe something different, you don’t just decide to feed yourself a really pretty sounding lie – even though to be fair you may have been feeding yourself an ugly lie before. When you want to change how you think, you need to choose a new thought that is better than the old one, but still believable. Sometimes you need to give new thoughts a test drive – is this something that’s going to cause me to constantly argue with myself or does it bring a little relief, a sense of possibility, a little compassion to myself or others. You have to choose to actively practice a thought that will improve your situation but that maybe isn’t quite the rainbow glitter unicorn of a thought you’d really LOVE to believe if it wasn’t so incredibly outlandish.
When you feel your old story rearing up, remind yourself that it’s a choice, and actively think that new thought. Remind yourself that you aren’t responsible for everyone’s holiday or that you have no idea what they think of you. Remind yourself that you don’t have to revert to your 14 year old self. Remind yourself that you get to decide who you will be both within and outside of the family.
And then notice how you feel. And notice what happens to your complex family gathering. Notice as your ability to enjoy increases and your stress level decreases. Take heart in your capacity to change yourself and, oftentimes, everything around you, just by changing your mind.