6 quick tips on mindfully navigating the holidays when you aren’t “feeling” it

Notice what you feel without judging. Sometimes people believe that if they don’t feel a certain way, they are missing out on some kind of grand, spiritual, or wonderful experience. I am reminded of the Charlie Brown Christmas special in which he doesn’t feel like he “should”.  Not everyone is awed, exhilarated, or spiritually “moved” this time of year.

Accept and acknowledge the mundane, the everyday, or the not-so-wow experiences this season.  Remember that the glue that holds us together in the smaller, everyday nuances of our existence and our relationships also has meaning. Foster the relationships that matter.

If you want to feel more connected and less detached, practice ways to participate willingly, go with the flow, risk being open, and become involved. Volunteer, show up for the holiday parties, attend services, and remain attentive and awake to what is going on around you. Although it is possible that exerting energy takes effort (and may not completely diminish loneliness), it gives you an option to temporarily shift your mood.

Find the stillness within– Crowds, shopping, to do lists, and holiday planning can be overwhelming. Finding stillness within yourself can help you cope adaptively, slow things down, find your wisdom, and stay grounded.  Bear in mind that you have the ability to find inner wisdom, but sometimes emotions and other people can get in your way of finding it. Try the suggestions below:

Find 2-5 minutes once a day from now until Christmas to sit quietly, observe your breath, and gently pay attention to whatever sensations arise within you. After sitting quietly, try writing: I notice… I would like… I feel…I sense…I think…I am aware of…I am most worried about…

If you are out shopping or involved in intense holiday planning, make sure that you don’t skip meals or shop on an empty stomach. Take periodic breaks that include sitting down and being away from loud noises, bright lights, and crowds. Consider what you need and the cost/ benefit of overestimating your energy and pushing yourself too hard.

Pleasant events and positive life experiences

One way in which we buffer negative emotion, stressful life events, and painful circumstances is to create opportunities for positive emotion, tell people about these opportunities, and plan activities and events in our lives that we look forward to doing.

One way of doing this is to build mastery. This means doing things that are challenging or hard and provides opportunities for growth and achievement. Building mastery generally gives us a sense of purpose, accomplishment, or an “Aha! I did it!”.  Not having enough challenges can make us bored, which can be a contributing factor for depression. Approaching something that we have been avoiding, taking an emotional risk in sharing what we are feeling, or speaking up when we usually don’t might all be ways of building mastery.

Another way to create positives is to really notice and experience the small comforts throughout your day. Small daily pleasures or simple “little” things often get taken for granted, ignored, or neglected when we are focusing on our pain. When we plan for pleasant events and opportunities, resulting positive emotions show up more often. Consider spending time with someone you care about, fostering a relationship, attending and listening carefully, or being emotionally present when you are with someone. Consider sharing recent pleasant events, ways in which you are building mastery, how you are working on short or long-term goals, or what you are looking forward to this week.

How to change the behavior of someone you care about deeply

First, acknowledge what you cannot control. When others do things that are destructive, hurtful, irritating, annoying, or have painful consequences, the acknowledgement itself is simply a way in which you are looking and seeing what is actually going on. Not wanting something to be true, ignoring the fact that it is happening, attacking the person for the behavior, and making threats often reflects an inability to accept and acknowledge what is there. Often people don’t want to accept reality because it means something very painful. The acceptance of what is and the acknowledgement of what you cannot control can lessen the drama around the fight. It can also get people unstuck from repetitive impasses. However, it often means grieving what has been lost.

Next, do something for the relationship itself. Having a strong relationship will make you much more powerful and influential than having a rocky or weak relationship. One way to do this is to focus on what you appreciate, value, or like about the other person. Make it a point to express this directly. Another way to do this is to create time together in which you actively listen to what the other person has to say. Don’t interrupt or disagree- instead, just see if you can focus on understanding how they see things. Pay attention carefully to thoughts, experiences, feelings, and opinions. See if you acknowledge how they see things- even if you don’t see them that way. You may want to simply reflect and summarize what they are saying, and use statements like “If I understand you correctly…” Try to be gentle, warm, and receptive. Temporarily suspend efforts to fix or control their behavior.

Finally- if you desperately want them to stop doing something that is hurtful- focus on naturally occurring consequences of their behavior. When you try to control or change someone’s behaviors by threatening, being coercive, or being cold and withholding, it could really damage the relationship. Be direct in expressing your own feelings and reactions about their behavior- without making threats. You will be more powerful and influential when the relationship is strong, spending time with the person is a pleasant experience, and you are liked. Therefore, treat the other person as capable of choosing. Treat them as an equal. When they are fully aware of the realistic, natural, unwanted and painful consequences of their actions, their options for choosing increase. Consider your role as an ally who helps them think through their actions. There will be a big difference between (you) trying to control the outcome through threat or coercion vs. (them) having to face what they are doing and figure out what they want to do about it.

Repeat the steps. Sometimes you will be able to accept and sometimes you will not. Practice acknowledgment of what you cannot control over and over again. Build the relationship. You don’t have to ignore to deny what they are doing. You just have to have a way to address it in such a way that your voice matters, you don’t lose your own self-respect, and you don’t lose sight of what is important.

What acceptance means in the face of loss

Acceptance is considered to be a critical component to being able to cope adaptively. People who are able to accept what is (or what has already happened) are generally able to move more fluidly through life. They have less problems getting “stuck”, “hung up”, or “unable to let go”.

When I first learned about acceptance I thought it meant that I had to just deal with it. This angered me because I felt very alone. I thought it was another way in which I could not speak up or have a voice. Just dealing with it was a way in which I didn’t feel as if my pain, grief, or loss was being acknowledged. The concept of acceptance was difficult because it seemed as if the rest of the world was able to “move on”, but because I had strong feelings about it I wasn’t able to.

Accepting something is different from approving or liking something. I think this distinction is important, because some people think of acceptance as giving up, being hopeless, or becoming passive. Acceptance somehow gets translated into nothing ever changing.

However, being able to radically accept something is a way in which all of reality can be fully acknowledged. A person cannot change the past or avoid what has been lost. It is hard to live a rich, fully, and meaningful life if a person can’t see reality for what it is. In order to change reality, we have to first fully accept it. Often this means seeing all that is in front of us. Sometimes if we can see what is in front of us, we can access the resources and information we need to change it.

Often acceptance of something brings pain. The benefits of not accepting often have to do with keeping doors for sadness, loss, grief, or other kinds of emotional pain closed. Sometimes not looking at reality means not having to deal with reality. Acceptance of reality can also mean the acceptance of our own emotional responses and our own distress. While it may seem paradoxical to work on acceptance our own distress, this acceptance will help us grieve, understand ourselves, figure out what matters, and be more fluid in our ability to handle life’s losses.

I don’t think anyone could be in accepting mode all of the time. Acceptance sometimes comes in small parts, and sometimes there are some short-term benefits to non-acceptance. I don’t think anyone wants to live with loss, but sometimes the full acknowledgement of reality as it is enables us to get “unstuck.”

Should you change your behavior or change your beliefs? A closer look at self-compassion.

Social psychology research indicates that it is easier to change behavior than it is to change attitudes or beliefs. Part of what characterizes third wave behavior therapies (such as DBT) is behavioral activation. In other words, there is a focus on changing behavior over changing attitudes.

Here is one of the most predominant ways this shows up in DBT: A client with extreme self-hatred or self-blame won’t do things that are nurturing, caring, or compassionate towards oneself. The argument goes something like this: “I don’t deserve, I would feel guilty, I have to take care of everyone else, it’s always my fault anyway, I deserve to be punished…” It is easy for others to follow up with this argument by challenging, cajoling, or even opposing the argument. “Why do you think this way, of course you deserve, you can’t cater to the whole world, stop talking that way…” The dialogue of I don’t deserve/ yes you do deserve can become rather exhausting. If you’ve ever participated in one of these conversations, you could probably relate.

Part of the skill set for tolerating distress has to do with treating oneself with compassion. More specifically, engaging in behaviors that are self-soothing, calming, respectful of sadness, and a soft acknowledgement of the rough and painful aspects of life generally help people through the rough times. People who don’t do enough of this and treat themselves harshly are going to have an even harder time getting through the roadblocks of life. Self-attacking just isn’t a very effective way of solving problems.

If you are extremely miserable and you would like to feel better you may have to change your behavior despite whatever argument is going on in your head. If you could do something to make your current distress more tolerable, why wouldn’t you do it? If you could treat yourself with kindness and compassion, be understanding, and acknowledge your deepest fears and hurts- at least to yourself- why wouldn’t you? If this made your life easier, more livable, and more hopeful- why wouldn’t you do it? Arguing about deserve-ability certainly isn’t doing anything for you.

In order to feel differently you have to act and behave as if self-compassion and kindness matters. You may have to tolerate some guilt, set some limits on your time, or even say no to the demands of others. The point is that you should get started on acting and behaving in ways that are worthy or deserving of you. Over time, your attitudes may change right along with your behavior. And in addition to feeling better because you are behaving as if you have more self-respect, you will have more resources for coping when other people put you in demeaning situations, take advantage or you, or assume that you are willing to be treated poorly.

Communicating anger without killing your audience

The blog post this week is for persons who have a hard time with anger. If you are a person who tends to rant and rave, gets in trouble with personal attacks, or comes across as interpersonally abrasive, this post is for you.

Communicating anger can be done effectively when the intensity of anger matches the message. Anger has to be at a manageable level. If you can get anger to go down, you may have a very strong point to communicate- but you’ve got to do it in such a way that anger works for you, instead of getting in your way. Here are some suggestions:

  • Soften your gaze, relax your face, and try smiling with half of your face.
  • Unclench your jaws and your fist, open your palms, and relax your body.
  • Stop glaring.
  • Be clear about what you want to communicate. Try stating it in a matter-of-fact but firm manner.
  • Slow down your breathing.
  • Try to pay attention to how your face communicates. A flat, impermeable look can be negatively interpreted or misinterpreted. (Notice if/how you are drawn to particular TV characters who have expressive faces).
  • Wiggle your eyebrows. Try shooting one eyebrow up.
  • Notice your tone of voice. Try singing what you want to say before you talk to the person. This will get you to notice your emotion in your voice and make it hard for you to hang on to the intensity of the anger. Another option is to use a cartoon voice.

If you act or behave in such a way that is incompatible with anger, you will have a pretty good chance of getting your anger to go down. Being clear, matter-of-fact, and firm; staying connected, rooted, and close to your inner wisdom can be a much more effective way to communicate anger than sarcasm, attacks, and rants.

Autumn mindfulness

This week for mindfulness I am asking my participants to look at a leaf as if they have never seen it before. The instructions include observing the leaf carefully, looking closely at its color, breathing in its earthy leaf-smell, and paying attention to its texture.

The leaves of autumn come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some have bright colors and some have unusual patterns. Some have holes, rips, or tears. Some have started to turn brown and some have black spots on them. Some are wet and slimy and others are brittle and crunchy. Some are visually appealing and some are less appealing to look at.

Mindfulness is about being able to observe what is in front of us, without dismissing or evaluating, without throwing away or ignoring, and without inhibiting or suppressing. Sometimes what we observe is not pleasant. Sometimes we do not like what we observe, or we wish for things to be different. Sometimes we see what others are holding, or observing, or turning over in their palm- and we wish that our leaves were as exciting or pretty.

When we look carefully at the details of an autumn leaf, we start to see things that we haven’t bothered to see. Perhaps we are fascinated by the tiny detail of texture. Perhaps we are struck by the brilliance in color. Perhaps a mottled pattern draws us. Perhaps we notice liking, or not liking, or irritation, or impatience. Perhaps we notice jealousy.

When we can see what is in front of us- reality as it is on its own terms- we can give it our full attention. When we can give it our attention, we can start to get our minds around it. We can go through the necessary- even if painful- steps of what it is going to take to move through it instead of around it. We stop avoiding. We may start to see things not seen before. We increase awareness. We have new information- even if it is clarity about our own emotions.

Look carefully this week at things you don’t want to see. See if you can notice, gently, with willingness and awareness, the things that are easier to ignore or avoid. Allow for this to be.

Give your full attention to what is now.

Your life is about what you pay attention to. Your life may be about pain, joy, sadness, searching, getting rid of, or avoiding. It may be about the discomfort, the uneasiness, the anxiety, the emptiness. It may be about the looking for, the lack of, or the not enough.

Your life is about the very moment you are in.

Bearing with just this moment means being able to be okay with who you are in just this moment.

If this moment is about trying to get rid of all the experiences that come with it, your life will be about NOT tolerating the moment.

Being present with yourself is a willingness to acknowledge whatever is there- including pain.

Return to the breath. When you inhale, allow air into the tiny spaces, the tight muscles, the constricted areas, and the place of being stuck.


Boston traffic and jammed T stops: How to practice willingness

Often, when we don’t want something to be the way it is, we fight our way through it. We complain loudly, we tense up, we try to do it quickly in order to get it over with, or we avoid doing it all together.

Willingness is the idea of doing something with receptivity. Doing something willingly doesn’t really mean that we have to like it or want it. Doing something willingly is doing something because it needs to get done. I like to think of it like this: The universe requests us to do things that we just sometimes have to do. Sometimes those things include speaking up for ourselves, saying no and being willing to tolerate conflict, telling someone how deeply we care about them, or taking responsibility for something that we don’t want to take responsibility for.

There are many things that challenge our willingness to be willing on a daily basis! But this is how it works: When we stop fighting or avoiding our capacity to deal with life (on its own terms), life itself gets more tolerable. Seems paradoxical!  May not change it. May not be ideal. May even mean experiencing pain.

Inviting yourself to be willing involves relaxing your face, being gentle with yourself, quieting your breathing, and getting into a willing posture. Quit tensing your jaw and relax your shoulders. No glaring. No harsh words. It may even mean changing your tone of voice to invite compassion and kindness.

One great way to practice willingness is when you get stuck in bad traffic or when you get stuck on the T (the subway here in Boston).  Practicing willingness with the less important day-to-day life issues is one way to get you started on the path towards willingness. Imagine this as an opportunity to radically accept that the universe is throwing you a bone- and your task to survive it with the least amount of suffering possible.