Are You Ready to Spend Time With Family This Holiday Season? Here’s the Ultimate Mindful Guide to Complicated Dynamics

Let's face it, no matter what holidays you celebrate, there are countless reasons we may be managing difficult emotions (and social situations). The good news is that our mindfulness practice is here to support us and help us make space for self-compassion and maybe even a bit of ease.

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During this holiday season, it’s expected throughout our culture to be merry, lighthearted, and tirelessly social—but the reality is that few of us can live up to these expectations all of the time. There are countless reasons we may be managing difficult emotions at this time of year—especially in the social situations that make up so many of our holiday traditions, no matter which holidays you celebrate. Tempers may flare. Tears may happen. It’s all understandable, if not comfortable. 

The good news is that mindfulness both lets us accept ourselves and our emotions as they ebb and flow, peak and plummet; our mindfulness practice can also help us to work with those emotions, giving us the inner space we need to care for ourselves and those around us.

First: Slow Down and Take Care of Yourself

One of the ways we tend to respond to the stress of this time of year is that instead of taking a break from our normal, busy lives, we fill our time with even more activity, more obligations, and more opportunities to encounter the edges of our capacity. We speed up as though, if we stay busy enough, we can outrun all the crazy. Part of self-care during the holidays is knowing when to slow down, and when to say no. This way, maybe you can actually enjoy this holiday season. 

Here are five self-care tips to help you slow down amid the bustle of familial and social events: 

  1. Pace yourself. Remember to simply pause a few times a day, tune in to your body and breathe in the moment. You may be thinking: breathe? That’s your advice. But research shows that many of us aren’t breathing fully. So, take a moment, breathe in fully so that your belly extends on the in-breath. Pausing also applies to your social engagements: See if you can pass up a few invitations this year. If you’re hosting, consider a holiday potluck as an opportunity for folks to share a meaningful recipe, allowing you to enjoy their company instead of stressing out over food preparation. 
  2. Emphasize kindness. Once you’ve mastered the art of the mindful breath, to give yourself a moment of pause, use that moment to remember to apply a light touch when it comes to relationships and subjects that are challenging for you. Hold the intention of wishing everyone well, (especially challenging people) even saying silently, I wish for this person to be happy. Instead of jumping on comments you disagree with or diving headfirst into an argument, do your best to look for opportunities to offer a genuine compliment or kind word, or get up from your seat and lend a hand with a task. 
  3. Savor your food. The holidays often mean too much sugar, alcohol, junk food, you name it, combined with missed workouts, late nights, and packed weekends. This festive combo can lead to feeling less than optimal in body and mind. Psychologist and mindfulness teacher Christopher Willard suggests tuning in to your body’s signals of hunger and thirst. When you’re hungry, make yourself a plate of food, put snacks in containers to eat out of, and slow down when you eat, which allows you to better experience the flavors and textures of your food—and make you less likely to overdo it. Remember that sometimes our bodies mistake thirst for hunger, so before you reach for another cookie, ask yourself: am I thirsty? (And, of course, if you find yourself on the other side of a late-night grazing session, be kind to yourself. Just acknowledging that we sometimes eat to soothe and celebrate is an act of compassion).
  4. Listen to your emotional needs. We always talk about celebrating and being with loved ones, but holidays can also be a tremendously anxious or painful time, for many reasons. You may want to have this holiday feel “normal” again, but maybe you can try to embrace the ways it’s changed. Even the difficult ways. And then see how you can recognize the activities or situations that intensify difficult emotions for you, and take steps to minimize them. This might mean skipping certain events or limiting your interactions with some people.
  5. Notice what brings joy. What are you grateful for, really? When you close your eyes and exhale long and deep, what comes to mind as something you’re grateful for? Whether you follow a faith tradition or just enjoy the festivities, take a few minutes each day to focus on what brings you gratitude. The more attention you give to what you appreciate, especially the small things, the more reasons for joy and gratitude you’ll notice everywhere—even long after the holidays have passed.

Keep These 3 Mindful Phrases in Your Pocket for Challenging Interactions

No matter how well prepared you are, family events and other social gatherings can put your skills to the test. As Google’s mindfulness mentor, Chade Meng-Tan, would say: If you think you’re mindful, go to a family reunion. When stress and tension flare up, Meng shares three attitudes you can cultivate to find some inner calm this holiday:

  1. Keep it Real: Acknowledge, This is hard. I can do my best, and I don’t have to be perfect. Even people with years of meditation practice still find themselves ruminating over fights with relatives, replaying past hurts in their minds, and trying not to get caught up in their reactions. Be gentle with yourself—these situations can be hard for everyone. 
  2. You’re Only Human: Look at everyone in the room, and no matter how difficult your relationship may be, just think to yourself, I wish for this person to be healthy, safe, and happy in life. This thought sets an intention and causes a warmth of heart and it goes a long way to reducing negativity and stress.
  3. This Life is Short: When you’re finding it deeply challenging and hard to be around someone, it helps to recall to yourself: If this person were to die tomorrow, how would I want to be present with them today? More than likely, you’d want to be generous with your time and your love, allowing any personal conflicts to take a backseat to compassion. We can begin to see a situation differently when we think about the fact that we all have a limited amount of time together in life.  

Try These 4 Ways to Keep Your Seat Around Loved Ones With Different Opinions Than You

For many of us, we’re facing the reality that members of our family or close community have made choices and voiced beliefs that we don’t agree with. If you’re in this kind of situation and struggling with feelings of grief, helplessness, worry, anger—or anything else—know that you’re not alone. Remember to be kind and gentle to yourself, even as you hold the boundaries that you need to hold. If you need to, explore these four suggestions to move toward peace and to make your way safely through the holidays:

1. Accept your feelings: Whether you feel the heat of frustration, or a hollow sadness or lack of certainty—or a jumble of emotions—know that your emotions are valid. Allow yourself to feel what you feel at any given moment, with a sense of self-compassion, and without judgment. 

2. Express your feelings: Just as important as accepting your feelings is expressing them in a way that is helpful to you, especially if you are feeling blocked in your ability to communicate effectively with people who have different opinions.