Mindful

It’s said that expectations are resentments waiting to happen. And there’s no other time of the year quite like the holidays for high expectations: “It’s going to be amazing to have the whole family together,” declares one chorus of holiday revelers. “This family weekend will be an absolute disaster,” thumps a crew of bah-humbuggers. And as we think and act, our holidays become self-fulfilling prophecies.

No one is immune to the call of unmet expectations during the holidays. A few years back was our first holiday season with our new baby. The chaos of packing for three, first flights with a baby in the family, and managing simple travel logistics left us underprepared for self-care heading into the holidays. We were too busy to even hear the deep wisdom of the preflight announcements “Place your oxygen mask on yourself first, before assisting others…”

It’s said that expectations are resentments waiting to happen. And there’s no other time of the year quite like the holidays for high expectations.

Things started out well enough, chatting with in-laws and relatives, and proudly showing off our new child. By night, however, our dream child, who had been a miracle sleeper since birth, decided to show everyone in the small house his displeasure at sleeping in a strange new place.

The next day began as a continuation of the day before, but with a heavy dose of exhaustion in the mix. We fielded complaints and passive aggressive comments about everyone’s lack of sleep, as if there were anything we could do. I found myself fluctuating between hot flares of shame and anger. The small talk strained as guests stretched topics of common interest and steered away from hot button issues. Then claustrophobia and boredom from the cold rainy day settled in.

Some relatives offered to babysit Leo so we could meet up with friends (and escape the closing walls). I spent the day fixated on the promise of relief from a crying baby from the newest generation and passive aggressive parent shaming from the oldest.

That is until a few minutes into the afternoon, the babysitting volunteers poured themselves “just one drink” in the form of 8 ounce glasses of vodka that they proceeded to polish off before opening the wine. I watched, tired, impatient, counting on that escape—I was ready to snap.

May I see the suffering of others and the ways that manifests in their behavior…

Then I started becoming angry with myself. What was I thinking? I knew these relatives had a terrible track record with drinking and being unreliable. How could I ever trust them with my child? I was not just a fool but a terrible father to boot, I told myself.

Then the rage turned outward toward all the guests, toward my relatives. I was a mess.

It was a moment when I could have used what my friend Chris Germer calls a “Self Compassion Break.”

That was a while back. I’ve stepped up my mindfulness, compassion, and self-compassion game since then, especially at holidays, practicing self-care, getting enough sleep, eating good food, and balancing my expectations with a healthy (and humor-filled) dose of reality.

Since that time I’ve come up with a quick mindfulness tool I keep in my pocket for times when I’m triggered, tired, frazzled, or ready to fight. I call it my ACE in the hole. Here’s how it works:

COMPASSION PRACTICE: A mindfulness ACE in the hole

Find some space to yourself, (if you can) and gently place a hand over your heart, on your belly, or your cheek. This is a caring gesture toward ourselves that instantly calms and consoles, quelling the cortisol rush. Then acknowledge, connect, and extend compassion. This can be your ACE in the hole for moments of suffering.

A- Acknowledge

C- Connect yourself to the human experience

E- Extend yourself whatever compassion you need in the moment

….

Here’s how it might look in practice:

The Basics:
A:
“This is a moment of suffering.

C: We all suffer.

E: May I be kind to myself in this moment.”

 

The Holiday Stress Version:
A: “This is a moment of holiday stress…

C: We all experience holiday stress to the point that it’s become a cliché of TV holiday dramas and standup comedians…

E: May I just give myself a break and relax…”

 

The “Things Are Insane” Version:
Or maybe that’s not enough. Because sometimes, like that one year, it could be more along the lines of:

A: “This is a moment that feels like a complete rage-storm of insanity…

C: We have all, as humans, experienced our own moments of complete rage-storms of insanity…

E: And so, given that, may I be kind to myself in this moment…

May I move forward with high holiday hopes but with neither high nor low expectations…

May I enjoy the food…

May I allow the gratitude of this holiday to sink in…

May I have the courage to ask myself and others for what I need…

May my child and family be safe…

May I see the suffering of others and the ways that manifests in their behavior…

 

And may we all have happy holidays…

And may we all make it home safe, and even somewhat sane, this holiday season.”

Christopher Willard

Christopher Willard, PsyD, is a psychologist and educational consultant based in Boston, specializing in mindfulness for adolescents and young adults. He has been practicing meditation for over fifteen years. He currently serves on the board of directors at the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy and the Mindfulness in Education Network. Dr. Willard has published five books on contemplative practice, including Growing Up Mindful. He teaches at Harvard Medical School.

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