Acceptance, pain, and the holidays

It’s interesting to me to hear from persons receiving psychotherapy services how they observe changes in themselves, but when returning to certain contexts, family situations, or holiday “scenes” they experience the same frustrations and interactions that have been happening with family members for years. Returning to old environments can be an extremely potent in evoking old, familiar, and even painfully uncomfortable feelings- more so than what some people realize. Old patterns of interacting start happening despite the best of intentions to step back, not “attack”, or somehow magically not be hurt or pained in the same way that has happened in the past.

Here are a few helpful suggestions:

1) Just because no one else observes painful or ugly interactions doesn’t mean that what you notice has no merit. Sometimes it’s hard to think of your reactions as valid or useful when there is a “stuck” quality in the interactions- even if there really isn’t space for you to say it out loud. You may need to save it and say it out loud in other, more receptive settings.

2) Radical acceptance is one of my favorite skills for a reason. Despite the fact that I certainly can never accept all things at all times, I nonetheless believe it is a skill worth revisiting again and again and again. Allow for whatever is. Notice emotions in the room. Notice your own emotions. Notice urges to control, interrupt, or attack. Notice if there is a constant need to save face or stand up for yourself.

3) Consider: “My (family member) is doing the best they can right now, and that is all they can do.” Instead of thinking: “SERIOUSLY?? That’s ALL they can DO?” try to come up with reasonable, valid, and compassionate reasons for their behavior. Sometimes when we recognize the limits of people around us, sadness creeps in around what has been lost, missed out on, or left unsaid. Sometimes what others can give us just isn’t enough of what we want or need from them. This too is part of wholehearted acceptance of what is, in the very moment it is.

4) Try to think of what you like or appreciate about the person, and make an attempt to comment on it. Simple things such as being picked up from the airport or the effort of preparing a nice meal is fair game (of course, don’t be sarcastic!). Highlighting what is valued can increase positive emotions and set the tone for more pleasant interactions- and may take some willingness on your part to ignore or overlook what is driving you nuts.

5) Structure your time if at all possible. Family stressors can be exacerbated by boredom, poor planning, being taken out of your “regular” schedule, or feeling overburdened/ overwhelmed with cooking and cleaning. Take breaks to catch up with supports outside of family, plan for “down time”, and/or plan to get out of the house (exercise, movies, libraries, museums, church).