Awake or asleep? How do you want to navigate the holidays?
Whether you’re going to a family gathering, work get-together, or social function, the holidays are a busy time…and sometimes the busyness translates into stress. The stress is compounded by unfinished business lurking in the dynamics of our family circles. This constant hustle and bustle zaps our energy and leaves us feeling less-than-joyful. We forget what the holidays are all about. In fact, many of us may wish for them to just be over with.
But the holidays are a wonderful time to catch up with friends and family. It’s an opportunity to fill our lives with joyful experiences and stronger connections; all we need is a shift in our approach. So, this year, rather than reaching for the eggnog to zone out, here’s how to engage with others, zone in, and bring more meaning into your holiday season.
If you want to have happier holidays this year, the choice is up to you.
Navigating Through Sticky Holiday Situations with Family
When I was very young, my sister and I were sitting at the kids’ table one Christmas. I believe my sister was about five-years-old at the time. Like many children, she didn’t operate with a filter yet. Typically, she said whatever was on her mind.
A family friend brought their much-doted on, fluffy little terrier to dinner and put his dish right next to my sister, thinking Fido was joining us at the table. My sister piped up and said, “I like dogs, but not THAT much!”
Now, what happened? All the adults erupted in a nervous, uncomfortable laughter. Someone shushed my sister. But the truth was, while her comment was probably a little insulting to the dog’s owners (who were lovely family friends), it was coming from a place of pure honesty. She simply articulated what the rest of us were thinking. The adults might have had sympathy on the surface, but they still gossiped and rolled their eyes about a dog at the dinner table. So which reaction was really any better?
How many of us go into social situations, afraid to pipe up when there’s a dog at the table? We hold back, afraid to say what we’re really thinking. We don’t express what we want and we shy away from conflict.
This means we end up making excuses for avoiding the in-laws. When we do end up at a party, we might feel stressed, annoyed, angry, and resentful. We may feel upset with our spouse for dragging us to a function we didn’t want to attend.
When we experience these resentments and frustrations, it leaves us feeling drained, tired, and less-than alive. We drink another glass of champagne. We watch TV. We wait for it to be over. And these feelings aren’t limited to holiday functions.
As NY Times columnist, Sean D. Kelly wrote, “Think of the way that life really can become lifeless. You know what it’s like: rise, commute, work, lunch, work some more, maybe have a beer or go to the gym, watch TV. For a while, the routine is nurturing and stabilizing; it is comfortable in its predictability. But soon the days seem to stretch out in an infinite line behind and before you. And eventually, you are withered away inside them. They are not just devoid of meaning but ruthless in their insistence that they are that way. The life you are living announces it is no longer alive.”
This holiday season, choose aliveness.
Getting Past What We’re Avoiding
A lot of people are going to drink their way through the holidays. It’s not because they’re happy. It’s because they don’t know how to deal with it. Even those who don’t imbibe still turn to screen time and other soft addictions to help them cope. We turn on the football game, we blast the parades, we pack in distractions because we simply don’t know how to be fully alive and present with others—particularly our families.
If we’re alive and present, we’re going to follow our yearnings. If we follow our yearnings, we’re going to speak up like my sister did to our dog-owning friends. We assume it’s better instead to “keep the peace” but it doesn’t truly bring us peace internally.
We all have family members who button-hole people at the holiday dinners. The uncle who drones on and monopolizes the conversation to all who will listen. Aunt Suzi prattles on and on. She catches peoples’ ear and talks endlessly about topics no one else cares about, while the audience member scans for an exit. We know a simple question leads to tragic entrapment. So instead we avoid.
If we end up in the next room, we find Mom and Aunt Ann gossiping and complaining about the men. Then we run to the next room with the kids who are whining about the adults. We’re simply wandering through, looking for a way out. As the game matures, everyone learns to put on a stiff upper lip, a social look, and save their judgements for the car.
Once they get into the car they unload. What happens? A fight erupts.
This was always the case with my family. A two-hour odyssey “over the river and through the woods” (or in this case through Chicago and past O’Hare) to get to the family was filled with tense anticipation. My father wasn’t looking forward to seeing my grandmother, who had a high-pitched voice like nails on a chalkboard.
The whole way to visit family for the holidays the fight would get going. Not because my mother didn’t agree, but because she was very enmeshed with my grandmother. They spoke so often, in fact, my father bought my mother a shoulder cradle for the phone (back in the days of “landlines”) so she could do dishes and housework while my grandmother prattled on and on—otherwise, she may not have ever gotten anything done.
Meanwhile, my grandfather didn’t like my father because he’d “stolen” his baby girl and was less affluent than they felt she deserved. It took years for my grandmother to realize my mother had actually made a wise move to marry for love.
So, there we were with all this unfinished business driving on the highway; my father upset and irritable; my mother downplaying her own irritation with my grandparents, even though she knew as well as we all did, it wasn’t a pleasant situation.
But on we went, and it was miserable every year.
Now, were we all wiser back then, we would have realized the unspoken feelings and resentments that were building up weren’t letting us feel the joy of Christmas. We weren’t engaging. We weren’t connecting. In fact, there was nothing about the spirit of the season to be found.
Honesty Brings Happier Holidays
The truth is, being honest is the key to bringing about happier holidays. Now, this doesn’t always mean a brutally honest verbal knockdown and drag out around the yule log. When we go into a situation with our emotional guns ablaze, we rarely resolve anything.
But embracing honesty throughout the year will help you have happier holidays. Even if it seems too late to start this year, it’s not. Express your feelings to your spouse about the situation BEFORE you get in the car and head to the events. Agree to a time limit or come up with a codeword when Aunt Suzi corners one of you and starts chatting. Use the time to connect more deeply with your partner and have a little fun with the situation. See yourselves as allies, who are in the situation together.
Beyond the holidays, commit to more honesty and greater aliveness in the new year. This means honestly acknowledging and appreciating the positive aspects of your life, your family, and your relationships.
It also means honestly expressing your feelings and engaging in productive conflict as you work FOR the better of the relationship. It may help to remember, one of the Rules of Engagement from our book, The Heart of the Fight is to fight FOR rather than against. Another key rule is to assume good intentions on the part of the other party.
When your father-in-law starts proselytizing about politics or your sister offers up thinly-veiled critiques of your job, operate with honesty but engage with them as a chance to learn. Can you empathize with their point? Can you ask them to help you understand where they’re coming from? How can you learn more about who they are? View it as a chance to learn something new about yourself.
When the dust settles, another key to happier holidays is to really use them as an opportunity to reflect on and appreciate what was good over the past 12 months. Create a ritual where you reflect on the transformative experiences you had this year, including holiday time with family. What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about your loved ones?
Use these insights from your reflection to plan with more intention in the next year. How will you bring more aliveness to your life? What will you carry with you into the future? What will you leave behind as you let go of the past year to help you move forward?
This time of year is a powerful opportunity for visioning and setting your intention and dreams for the year ahead. The same is true for all of us (including your family).
If you’re looking for an opportunity to experience happier holidays and engage with your family during events, use these dreams as a platform for conversation. It’s extremely interesting to discuss with family members their dreams for the next year. Find people in your family who are doing something and talk to them about their dreams and goals. Support them in following their dreams. Support them in stepping out on their own. You may not have the nerve to step out on your own in the past, but you may encourage a younger family member to have the courage to live their dreams.
You can be fully alive and in the spirit of gratitude for the holidays without being “polite” or lying to those around you. In fact, embracing honesty is key to having happier holidays. Use the challenging situations to discover and learn more about your relationships, your family and yourself.
Give purpose and meaning to the holidays and give purpose and meaning to how you want to develop yourself. You might not dive into all of the chaos of the family dynamic or resolve all your issues in one visit but operate with honest and openness as you mix and mingle this holiday.
For more on how to live with more honesty and intention, visit the Wright Foundation website. Join us for an upcoming networking event where you will connect with others and learn more about yourself. We also want to announce the availability of many of our courses for download. Don’t miss out on the special introductory price for many of our courses and lectures.
About the Author
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The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.