Happy Holidays … The Best of Times and The Worst of Times

They are the best of times and the worst of times, to borrow a phrase from Dickens. Parties, presents, family – and parties, presents and family.

Why do so many people feel so much stress this time of year? Parties are fun to go to – mostly, but then there’s the pressure to make small talk, the gossip, the time, and if you’re giving the party – the planning, shopping, cost and clean up. For many people who have social anxiety, they are especially difficult.

Then there’s the gift buying – what to buy – how much to spend. Thank God for plastic – until you get the bills. There’s the traffic, crowds, and an overwhelming amount of crap, frequently on sale and still usually overpriced. But the main stress of the holidays for many people is the family. Every day in my office I hear some horror story about some blow-out at a family function. In a recent interview, Donald Trump said "Friends are great; family is greater" – or not, I might add.

Why does there seem to be much more resentment between family members than between friends? What exactly does "blood is thicker than water" mean? It is certainly messier when it’s spilled all over the place.

The greater risk of hostility occurring in families has multiple causes. First, there’s a greater likelihood that we will get together with people we don’t particularly like when we are related to them. Many people avoid confrontation or open discussion of conflicts. In family, this may result in smoldering hurts and resentments, sometimes for decades.

Second are many opportunities for envy or jealousy. Third are feelings of entitlement that inevitably lead to disappointment. Fourth is a greater likelihood of indulging ourselves with a temper tantrum or tirade that would be fatal to a typical friendship but are usually tolerated in the context of the family. Throw in alcohol and the added stress of rug rats running around everywhere and you have the recipe for potential disaster.

What can we do to protect ourselves – or at least lessen the risks?

There’s no such thing as an unexpressed feeling. If not expressed or dealt with openly, it will come out indirectly in some neurotic or passive aggressive communication or will be internalized as a somatic or physical symptom.

But feelings don’t have to be expressed immediately. It’s OK to wait until a suitable time and place. The holidays aren’t the ideal time to try and resolve ongoing conflicts. Anticipating an awkward situation and getting together ahead of time to clear the air is preferable, if circumstances allow. But if not, it may be helpful to let the person know that you’re aware of the problem and that you would like to get together soon and talk (set a specific time if possible).

When you have a "serious talk," set your goals realistically. It takes two people to have a positive personal dialogue. It also takes two people to have a nasty fight – Either one can usually stop a bad exchange. Sometimes the best you can do is acknowledge that you understand how the other person feels and why. You don’t have to agree. You can’t make them understand how you’re feeling, but you have a better chance once they know you have heard their position. Covey says in Habit 5, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

The pain of lost loved ones is frequently most intense during the holidays. It helps to share feelings and memories with people you are close to. Don’t just share how much you miss them and how it’s not the same without them. Recall the happy or especially funny incidents. Be thankful you have loving memories.

Listen with your "third ear," to paraphrase Theodore Reik. Read body language and tone of voice so that you might prevent gradual escalation to an emotional uproar. When appropriate, use active listening. Point out the feeling that you sense (i.e. "You seem quiet or down or upset or stressed."). This invites the other person to share. If sincere, be supportive, but other options include getting an agreement that prevents an increase in tension. Be caring, playful or straightforward. Do not be critical, controlling or sarcastic.

Try to avoid feeling sorry for yourself, even if you inherited a screwed up family. Don’t be a rescuer and try to fix everything. We can observe a lot by watching according to Yogi Berra. And Einstein said, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result." Do something different.

For the fortunate, the holidays are the best time of year. We get to see our families, participate in traditional activities and laugh a lot. If you are not so fortunate, don’t be part of the problem. Be part of the solution. You can start a new tradition this year.

Good luck!

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