The holidays can be one of the most stressful times of the year. But, by adopting three simple mental habits, you can dramatically reduce, if not eliminate anxiety as an unhealthy ingredient in your eggnog.
Technique #1: I scare myself by imagining…
Behind all worry and anxiety is a desire for something we want combined with a fear that an unwanted event or consequence is going to land on your head.
For example, you’re out shopping for a gift for your mother-in-law and the anxiety is running high. If your dig deep, you’re likely to discover that the problem isn’t the lack of choice, it’s the monologue in your brain that’s imagining her disapproval when she doesn’t like your gift.
Or you’re dressing for your significant-other’s company party. Your closet is full of clothes but the self-talk is all about the judgment that you imagine everyone else is going to pass on you. Too flashy. Too revealing. Too drab and boring!
While it’s not exclusive, most holiday anxiety is based on the fear of the judgment of others. We scare ourselves by imagining that other people will observe our – baking, gift-giving, attire, behavior, timeliness, whatever – and find it lacking. The far more likely truth is that the others are secretly awed by your baking, grateful for your gift and jealous of your attire.
Once you’ve identified the fear that’s behind the anxiety, though, it’s much easier to be logical, rational and even a bit humorous about it. So what if Cousin Beth, whom you haven’t seen for five years and likely won’t for another five, thinks your tie is too loud? How, exactly is that going to affect your life?
The technique is to take each worry and identify both the desire and the fear that are behind it by completing each sentence like this:
“I want to _________, and I scare myself by imagining ____________. The key words are “I scare myself by imagining.”
I want to serve a perfect holiday dinner and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll overcook the turkey and forget the pie.
I want to impress my fiancés parents and I scare myself by imagining that they won’t like my gift and encourage him to leave me.
I want to look my best for the company holiday party and I scare myself by imagining that my boss will disapprove of how I dress.
I want to keep the weight I’ve come down to this year and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll give in to peer pressure to eat and drink too much.
This process of learning to become aware of when we’re worrying and then identifying the fear that lies behind the worry, teaches us to pull the worrying habit back out of our subconscious, daily ‘normal’ and into the realm of ‘front-of-mind.’ Try a few of these mental scenarios for yourself and you might quickly feel more detached from and ready to be in control of the anxious thoughts that seem to invade and occupy your mind at this time of year.
Technique #2: Have to/Choose to
Around the holidays we all have things that we have to do. Or, rather, and more accurately, we all have things that we CHOOSE to do. As you learn to release the anxiety and worry from your life, it’s critical to recognize the difference.
Think about the holiday things that you have to do, many of which turn into sources of anxiety. Many people would say that, among other things, you have to:
Buy gifts for the people in your life
Travel to see family under very challenging conditions
Attend too many social functions
Eat and drink more than normal
Spend too much
There are plenty of people, however, who don’t buy gifts, don’t travel to see family and don’t go to parties. But, you might say, there are social pressures – especially from family – that force you to do these things. You might say, further, that while it’s true that there are people who don’t do these things, bad things – family feuds, broken relationships – happen as a result. You’re right again. But the fact remains that everyone, at all times, has a choice. And you need to be aware that, even when it feels like you are being forced into something, you still have a choice.
If you believe that there is anything at all that you absolutely, positively must do because circumstances or someone else is forcing you to, you completely surrender your power to live your own life. In every single instance, you hold and make the choice.
Let’s look at an example:
I have to go home for Christmas.
If I don't go home for Christmas, my mother will never let me hear the end of it.
If my mother comes down on me, my life will be miserable.
If I’m miserable, my friends won’t want to be with me.
Given the choice, I'd rather go home for Christmas than lose my friends.
Of course, there are also people who would rather suffer their family’s wrath than travel through winter conditions and sleep on the pullout couch. The choices you have might not be great ones, but it’s absolutely critical to understand that you always have choices.
The truth is that no one and nothing can force you to do anything. You always have the choice to comply or not, to agree or not, to act or not, to worry or not to worry. Many of us pretend we are a victim, but we are not, we always have a choice.
Technique #3: 100% for 50%
Gift-giving can be such a minefield!
Did I spend enough? Did I spend too much? Did I express the right amount of sentiment? Did I express too much?
As we said earlier, most holiday anxiety is based on the fear of the judgment of others. And it’s not just in the area of gifts. You’ve taken an action – given a gift, worn a particular dress, visited for two hours – and you are worried how the other person might interpret that action, and subsequently judge you.
Here’s a thought that I find to be enormously helpful at this time of year:
You are 100% responsible for 50% of the relationship.
That means that you are responsible for giving the gift for the right reasons, visiting with love and caring in your heart and wearing the clothes that best express the real you. If you can honestly say that you have done these things, your work is finished.
How anyone else reacts to what you’ve done is completely out of your control. And, frankly, none of your business. That half of the relationship is in their hands.
For example, you agree to visit your parents and stay for two nights. You made that decision because you, and only you, are able to assess your priorities, your schedule and your tolerance. If you have made the commitment to be there for 48 hours, make those the best parent-visiting two days anyone has ever had. Give them your full attention. Bring all the love you have for them. Engage fully with them and appreciate everything they are and have been to you.
But when it’s time to leave and the guilt about staying longer is being handed out, it’s got nothing to do with you. That’s their 50%.
Many people are only too happy to hand you the full load of the relationship. “If you don’t do these things I want you to do, it’ll be your fault that I’m unhappy.”
The classic example is the newly married couple or the young parents. Which set of parents should we see? If you accept the guilt trips that many people are more than happy to hand out, you set yourself up for a lose-lose situation.
Take 100% responsibility for your half of the relationship. Then leave the other half to them.
The holidays are on top of us and along with the pretty lights, gifts, delicious food and sense of wonder we all enjoy, come the feelings of obligation that many of us experience regarding family, friends, co-workers, charitable giving and countless other social norms.
You don’t really want to go to that neighborhood party, but…
Uncle George is so obnoxious, but…
Your budget has no room for that many gifts, but…
Another drink is the last thing you want right now, but…
You genuinely don’t want a second helping, but…
I’m sure you had no problem completing those sentences. I’m equally sure that those ‘but’s’ were based on one version or another of the expectations that are laid on us by others – most of whom claim to love us and have our best interests at heart.
Regardless of the specifics or sources of the expectations, the ‘should’s’ that dictate so much of our behavior can be a huge source of anxiety and self-doubt. The gap between your focus on a healthy lifestyle and the pressure you’re feeling to drink too much at the office party is the anxiety you feel. The bigger the gap, the greater the anxiety.
Of course, if we dive a little deeper, it’s easy to see that the tension is actually between our desire for the healthy lifestyle and our desire for the good opinion of others. What will they think of me if I don’t attend the party? What will my mother say if I cut way back on my gift buying this year? We start to question our own judgment and wonder if we’re somehow weird or stupid.
Our early training by parents, teachers, coaches and others in authority established a limiting set of beliefs and self-doubts that still get in the way of our growth today. We’ve been buried under an avalanche of “sensible’s,” “should’s,” “ought to’s” and “you’d better’s” that told us, repeatedly, that our deepest and most precious desires were somehow wrong, misguided or stupid.
The most heinous crime you can commit on yourself is to live an inauthentic life. To live a life that someone else has told you that you should. Mokokoma Mokhonoana is a mystic, philosopher, yogi, and social critic from South Africa. He writes that “plants are more courageous than almost all human beings: An orange tree would rather die than produce lemons, whereas, instead of dying, the average person would rather be someone they are not.”
So how can you control the ‘shoulding’ in your life this holiday season?
Start by being aware of when it’s happening. Set a little part of your brain aside to serve as your third-party observer and ask it to send up a flare when you find yourself being pressured to do something that’s against your better judgment or that you simply don’t want to do.
When the flare goes up, take a moment and analyze the tension. Try to dissect its exact source. Is it an old habit that’s trying to resurface? An unhealthy desire to please others? Knowing the precise source of your anxiety is a huge step towards controlling and even overcoming it.
Next, take control of the ‘should.’ Recognize it for what it is and decide how much of it you will give in to. Perhaps you’ll decide to go to the party, but only stay a short while. Or maybe you agree to a second helping of pie, but insist on a very small piece. If they force a huge piece on you, eat two bites and leave the rest. If you choose to participate in gift-giving, recognize that maintaining your own fiscal health is far more important than keeping up appearances for others. Look for creative, low-cost options or give a single gift instead of multiple.
As your confidence grows you’ll find that resisting or even ignoring the ‘shoulds’ altogether gets easier. By limiting the control that those external ‘shoulds’ hold over you, you let yourself and others know that your desires and preferences are valid and worthy of respect.
As you insist on respecting your own desires and preferences, extend the same courtesy to others. It’s surprising how often we, too, participate in the ‘shoulding’ of others, often without even realizing it. Cut the other person some slack. Let them observe (or not observe) the holidays in the way they choose.
As Thoreau wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Ya gotta love the holiday season! Regardless of whose team you play for, or how sacred or secular you choose to be, the final month of the year is all about joy. And heaven knows that we could all use a lot more joy in our lives!
But why aren’t we more joyful? It’s easy to claim that it’s hard (even foolish?) to be joyful when the world is such a dreadful place. How can anyone be joyful in the face of terrorism, climate change, raging partisanship and uncertain economies? Well, it turns out that the secret to joy is simply choosing to be joyful. And there are plenty of role models if you need some coaching.
Take Nelson Mandela. The guy spent 27 years in prison. What did he do when he got out? He worked arm-in-arm with the people who put him there to fix what was wrong with the country; his thoughts on reconciliation, not revenge. Here’s a guy who had plenty to be pissed about, but have you ever seen a picture of him when he wasn’t smiling?
How about Gandhi? He didn’t exactly have it easy either. Born into and living under an oppressive and brutal occupation by the British, he decided to turn logic on its head and fight violence, not with more violence, but with its opposite. His non-violent approach resulted in him taking a lot of flak, but it also led to Indian independence, not to mention successful civil rights movements around the world. Like Mandela, though, just try to find a photo of him where he’s not brimming with joy.
Or Mother Teresa. She hardly spent her life in the lap of luxury. In fact she spent most of it in the gutters and hell-holes of Calcutta, tending to the lowest of the low, in the most decrepit and disgusting conditions imaginable. But find a picture in which she’s not positively glowing? Can’t be done.
I never had the privilege of meeting them in person, but I bet Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed and all those other greats were total cut-ups. Laughing all the time, joking, enjoying their friends, enjoying life. And, yes, smiling and joyful. Why don’t we ever see pictures of these guys smiling and laughing? Why do we interpret them as being so somber, solemn and serious? I think they would have been a hoot to hang out with! And in the midst of the joy, they’d teach me how to be a better, more joyful person myself.
The angel over Bethlehem was not recorded as saying, “I bring you somber news of great seriousness that should make you all dismal and subdued.” We’re told that it said, “I bring you good news of great joy.” And that message isn’t restricted to the Bible either. You’ll find it in every great, inspiring book we’ve got.
One of the holiday season’s wonderful movies is 2003’s Love Actually. Created by British screenwriter Richard Curtis, it opens with actor Hugh Grant narrating what I think is a joyful sentiment that puts it all in perspective for us.
Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love, actually, is all around.
Our flight was delayed an hour and we had to run like maniacs through the airport to make the connection.
Our internet service has been spotty lately and I had to endure high blood pressure, severe annoyance and likely additional hair loss as I dealt with the service rep on the phone.
I took my car in for some repairs last week and $600 later there’s still a leak in the cooling system.
Oh, I could go on.
But when I catch myself wallowing in the problems that plague my life, I like to stop, do a little mental pivot, and see this disaster from a different perspective.
We made the flight and, somehow, the miracle-working baggage handlers got our suitcases onto the next flight in four minutes flat! The aircraft mechanics had ensured the plane was flight-ready, the ramp crew loaded it with fuel, the pilots got us safely home and the flight attendant asked if I’d prefer red or white. Thanks, Delta!
The tech support actually fixed the problem quickly and I can again reach every corner of the globe from the lazy comfort of my couch. Thanks, Apple, Google and Xfinity!
I have a comfortable, reliable (and even slightly indulgent) car that I can drive anywhere I want in comfort and style. I have a conscientious and skilled mechanic who is more upset than me that we have to take a second look. Thanks BMW and Autobahn Service Center!
I’ve got problems all right.
I also have blessings. More than I could ever begin to count. And the blessings I enjoy so staggeringly overwhelm whatever I might label as a problem, that I’m ashamed when I catch myself complaining about anything.
To even describe them as ‘First World’ problems would give my so-called trials more weight and importance and give myself more self-indulgence than either of us deserve.
I think about the fires in California. I think about El Paso and Dayton. I think about children around the world who are hungry, thirsty, lonely and scared.
I have no problems. Only gratitude. And obligations.