‘tis the season to be joyful? Sad but true, while there’s much to love about holidays, many people find this an intensely difficult time. While it’s unlikely that we can change the in-laws’ behavior, or instantly restore a damaged relationship, or bring back a loved one we miss most these days… perhaps we can approach holiday stress in a new way this year.
When my kids were little, their school had a beautiful song, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” While sometimes it feels better, in a perverse way, to escalate the frustration and disappointment and overwhelm, here are three techniques to radically shift direction.
1. Unwrap Layers of Feelings
Have you ever played the gift game where a present is wrapped in many layers of paper; you pass the gifts around, each person unwrapping one layer ‘till you finally get to the prize. This is a metaphor for exploring our own feelings.
You’re going batty because of your sister Suzie’s constant comments about how your cranberry sauce isn’t quite right. You could stay focused on this outer layer, complain to your spouse and cousin Sasha and everyone who will listen… but in a flash of EQ inspired curiosity, you think, “maybe there’s more to the story?”
So you “unwrap” that surface feeling asking yourself what else you’re feeling, and see that underneath is a sense of inadequacy – no, you’re not perfect. Damn Suzie for reminding you. Again.
Yet on reflection, hiding under that is a feeling of helplessness because you wish you could actually have a good relationship with Suzie. But don’t stop there, because the next layer is a deep longing and love of family. And is that a tiny glimmer of hope?
This process of seeing the feelings under the feelings is a recognition of the complex blend of our experiences. While this can seem overwhelming, it also creates emotional opportunity. We can amplify any of those feelings by putting our attention to that layer.
2. Sprinkle Lights of Possibility
Tradition is so lovely from a distance, but up close, it sucks us into a trap. We did it this way, so we’ll do it this way again. We become prisoners of the patterns and fall into a kind of passive-resistant whining. Are we choosing our lives, or have we become idle passengers letting life happen to us?
Yes, it’s probably easier to surrender to a mind-numb dread-of-holidays helplessness (fuelled, no doubt, by the onslaught of over-bright holiday sweaters). “Honey, do we HAVE to go to the Jones’ party AGAIN?” “Well, we always go…” I can hear my own petulance, and wince. You too?
What if we treat all these experiences, especially days with lots to juggle, as opportunities to try something new?
What if each of these moments of challenge as a kind of game: “Where can sprinkle cheer today?” Seeking out opportunities for kindness, optimism, and levity causes us to focus less on the problem and more on our own efficacy. As we become more capable of redirecting the situations, we rediscover that we do, in fact, have the power to set our own course through the seas of tradition.
You know how, especially as snow is falling, holiday lights become these blurry glowing splashes of color? That’s a metaphor for this exercise.
3. Follow the Star of Wonder
As a boy, I loved Christmas caroling. Feeling the warmth of a candle on the cold night, being together, spreading cheer. I especially liked, “We Three Kings.” I loved my stepdad’s and grandfather’s rumbling bass on lines like, “Myrrh is mine: it’s bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom.” Of course it’s the chorus that we all could sing together, “O star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright…”
What is the “star” for you?
In the frazzle of shopping and cooking, it’s easy to lose sight of the why. The rituals become empty, and, as I wrote above, we get stuck in tradition. Yet underneath all that, each of us has some reason we’re participating (or not participating — even resistance is a sign of engagement in something).
The challenge is to keep the meaning present. To keep reminding ourselves, and one another, that we’re doing this for a reason. Why are you celebrating, or not celebrating? Why are you polishing that silver, or having a big party, or having a quiet evening around the fire… not the obvious answer, not “because that’s what we do” or “everyone else does,” or even “it’s tradition.”
What’s the deeper meaning for you? Think of words like hope, love, peace, connection, belonging…
Now the hard part: Can you connect your daily tasks with that larger meaning? Can you see and articulate the “why” behind the baking and scrubbing and shopping and even that “bold” sweater with the blinking Rudolf nose? (That’s the advanced challenge.)
A Process for Peace
If you’re familiar with the Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence, you’ll recognize these three tips as the three pursuits of the model. If not, here’s an introduction on getting started with emotional intelligence.
The three steps:
Awareness – Know Yourself – tuning in to the data of emotion
Management – Choose Yourself – shifting from reaction to response
Direction – Give Yourself – leading someplace worthwhile
As you walk through this process, over and over, you’ll find that you’re more and more able to do what you really mean to do. You’ll become better and better at creating peace, each of us starting with ourselves.
For more tips for the holidays, here is a collection of 10 practical ideas for an emotionally intelligent holiday from our global network (scroll down for the tips)