The year-end holidays can be wonderful. Families share more time together and (hopefully) have fun. Food usually brings people together and at the holidays this is no exception. In addition there are often rituals, music, stories, and special events that can strengthen a sense of belonging and feelings of comfort, joy, and mutual love.
Therein lie the problems as well. Emotions can be more intense and expectations can be high just as family members and loved-ones come together from near and far. The result can be a spicy interpersonal stew (if the kitchen doesn’t burn down first!)
All kidding aside, why are family events so painful for some individuals, especially persons who are emotionally sensitive or who have symptoms of borderline personality disorder? How can we help our sensitive and even conflictive relatives negotiate the holidays in peace?
I can think of four reasons why the holidays can bring on far more stress than fun and why some people might wish that the holidays go away all together (and thanks to Dr. Charlie Swenson for helping me to figure this out.)
Excess – The holidays can give us too much. This can include consuming too much food, sweets, eggnog, latkes, champagne, cocktails, and even too many jokes, too many presents, too many decorations. Excesses can lead to feelings of regret, remorse, blame, stress, or exhaustion, and other negative results.
Memories – Nostalgic, ideal holidays from the past can make the present holiday celebration disappointing or painful. On the other hand, the holidays can bring back negative memories that may include a long history of traumatic events during the holidays. If the holidays retrigger these traumas, it may be impossible to participate in family events or to enjoy the holidays at all. If the perpetrator of any type of childhood abuse is present at a holiday gathering, it may be actually be a good reason to not attend.
High expectations – When family events roll around, we can all have hopes and dreams about them. “We must all be together as a family” or “This time it will be better” or “My loved ones are finally going to give me X for a present.” These expectations may not actually materialize and once again we might feel deeply disappointed. We may even end up in an argument over expectations that are not shared by others.
Mental Comparisons – Comparisons between one’s self and others is a sure-fire way to feel bad. For persons with more severe levels of insecurity, emotional sensitivity, and interpersonal difficulties, comparisons between self and others can be emotionally devastating. And at the holidays there are more people around to make these comparisons (and who may be making comparisons too.)
· “All my cousins are [in college or have good jobs, or babies, or their own houses, or vacations] to talk about. I don’t have any of those things.
· “They all have these perfect, happy lives. They can all see that I’m a loser.”
· “Everyone will be watching me and judging me…I have nothing to talk about.”
Making these kind of comparisons activates the brain structures associated with the self and the more these structures are activated, the more stress we experience.
So what might be some skillful ways to handle all this?
In some ways, this depends if you experience any of this holiday stress yourself, or if you are more concerned about a loved one who is more distressed at this time of year and seems to have fewer internal resources to manage the holiday activities.
If you have a friend or loved one who wants to avoid a holiday event, do not pressure that person to attend. Allow everyone the freedom to choose. Within that freedom, you might ask what they would need to feel more comfortable. You might offer the option to drop by for appetizers or dessert or just to say hi to grandma and give her a hug… However, over-insisting that someone attend a family event may easily escalate into a heated argument before the event or an emotional crisis during the event.
Tips to manage “Excess”
Mindful eating and drinking includes savoring the food with all the senses, noting fullness, and respecting the feedback from the belly by stopping. If the endless desserts are too enticing to resist, ask if you could take a portion home with you instead of stuffing yourself.
If alcohol is part of the holiday ritual and there are no contraindications for your mental or physical health, keep in mind there three rules: do not drink on an empty stomach, hydrate with water regularly, and do not consume more than one drink per hour. If you feel tipsy, that is not a good time to get a refill. Instead try and take a few deep breaths and switch to water. If you need some support, ask a trusted person to remind you or offer you a glass of water if they notice you might be drinking too much or too fast. (If excessive drinking is a problem, it may be better to avoid such events until you have the skills to attend without drinking.)
Mindfulness also allows us to pause, step away and take a break from the activity if necessary. It may be that there is simply too much stimulus in the form of noise, activity, number of people, movement, or conversation. Innocent and careless remarks by others can be offensive, especially if there is alcohol which reduces people’s inhibitions. A mindful pause might include taking a walk, playing with a pet or any children present, or even just stepping into another room to avoid engaging in a disagreement, to distract oneself, or to recharge. Mindfulness is noticing that one is getting frustrated or over-stimulated and inquires into what may be the most effective way to move on from a sour moment in the given situation.
Tips to manage “Memories,” “High Expectations,” and “Mental Comparisons”
These problems are part of our internal mental experience. They are thoughts. They may be intrusive audio or visual thoughts about the past or the future that are very strong and clear. Or they may be part of the daily mental chatter that always seems to be in the background. Or both.
With a little practice, we can see thoughts come and go. We can notice how we might grab on obsessively and ruminate or analyze our thoughts and see them as just ephemeral thoughts. Thoughts are not reality. (They may represent reality or they may distort reality, but thoughts are not entering our bodies through our eyes or ears.)
Noticing physical sensations whenever these thoughts occur can be a useful skill to help manage intrusive memories. That means we bring our attention to the belly or the shoulders or anywhere in the body that is alive with a physical sensation.
For vivid or intense thoughts and feelings associated with post-traumatic stress, speaking aloud the current date and describing what is before our eyes can be helpful.
For the judgmental thoughts in which we compare ourselves to others, we might respond to ourselves with the thought, “I am doing the best I can” or “I will just try to be accepting and present” (except, of course if our health or welfare are in danger). We can practice giving ourselves a big hug; a gentle massage on our neck, shoulders, or hands; a soft, loving caress; or any gesture that sends a signal of self-compassion to our brain.
It requires a little humility to recognize and accept that we have no idea what will happen in the next minute, the next day, or the next ten years.
If you notice high expectations, remind yourself to practice “beginner’s mind.” As if it would be the first holiday dinner ever. Attend to what is happening with eyes and ears that are free of prejudice or expectation. While it will probably not be the best party ever, it will also not probably not be a total disaster. Predicting people’s behavior based not only on past experience, but on your past feelings that were triggered, will probably cause you more emotional distress, not less.
Try to practice having the intention to experience a holiday event with an attitude of openness, curiosity, and interest. Acceptance of what happens in the present and letting go of judgments can be powerful practices to help you get through the holidays happier and healthier. Stop trying to control others, insist that another must attend when they don’t want to, or expecting others to have the same perspective as you…even if they are part of your own family.
Mindfulness at a family dinner or other holiday event includes having the willingness to participate in conversation by listening, responding non-judgmentally, sharing observations and ideas, and reflecting back what you understand others are saying. It includes eating and drinking mindfully, listening to music or playing games mindfully. It is also a practice of letting go of those thoughts about the past and the future to be fully present with yourself and others. When you participate fully with family and friends, AND observe your need for retreat and rest if necessary, then you are taking responsibility for managing your own peace and joy at the holidays.
Corrine R. Stoewsand, Ph.D., 2023, DBTcoach.com
 Podcast from Dec 16, 2019 at https://charlieswenson.com/top-10-dbt-skills-based-antidotes-for-the-holiday-season-episode-61/