How to Keep Your Sanity Through the Holidays and Every Day

Kathy, a client of mine, was desperate. “What am I going to do? I invited the whole family for a holiday dinner,” she moaned. “You remember my talking about Uncle Bob? He’s so embarrassing when he drinks. And Aunt Carol? She talks a mile a minute and never runs out of steam! How will I get through this?” Kathy’s call was followed by Gail’s call. “I love my family, but you know how I like everything to be perfect. I can already feel the anxiety building!”

It’s holiday time, that special time of year when we gather with our friends and relatives, and we create a celebration that, at times, can leave us feeling angry and exhausted. Does this sound familiar to you? If so, you don’t need to worry. You can get through the holidays, or any day, with your temper in check, your sense of humor in place, and a natural smile on your face. Yes, you CAN do it. All you need is a successful strategy – or in this case, three successful strategies.

If you remember nothing else when you’re in an uncomfortable situation, just remember this: Don’t take anyone else’s behavior personally. The truth is that neither your Uncle Bob nor your Aunt Carol, nor anyone else who embarrasses or upsets you, can really see you. If they could, they wouldn’t want to upset you. Unfortunately, they are trapped in their own frame of reference. They are operating on automatic, lost in their own habitual behavior.

All of us have areas of our lives where we get stuck this way. That’s what gives us our capacity for growth. Not seeing your needs clearly and unable to view their behavior from your frame of reference, your relatives can’t do anything about the way they act. Nor, usually, can you. You can, however, do something about your own actions.

Do you habitually take someone else’s behavior personally? If so, try this experiment. Mentally step back from the situation and really see the other person. Remember past times when this person has behaved similarly, and notice how stuck in habitual behavior he or she is. Knowing they’re stuck will help you feel compassion for them, and you’ll be less likely to take their actions personally and more apt to respond calmly.

The potential miracle is that changing your understanding of the situation and your resulting behavior toward others offers them the best chance of reevaluating and changing their own behavior. It is not a guarantee, by any means, but it is certainly a possibility. Why? Because in an established relationship we interact in fairly fixed ways that become almost like rules for this particular relationship. When you change your behavior, you change the rules. Doing so, you alter the pattern of interaction, not only for yourself, but also for all involved.

Perhaps you’ve heard it said that to help yourself remain calm, you should expect the unexpected. Good advice, usually. Sometimes, however, that advice is too weak. At holiday times, and at other intense, and potentially difficult times, I advise people to expect five disasters per day! Expecting a disaster, you are less likely to be thrown off balance when one occurs. You simply handle it and go on with your day. Holidays, and other times when you want things to go especially well, can bring a multitude of disasters. Those special days seem to be “disaster-magnets”. That’s why I recommend expecting five per day. Witness the following scenario:

Your spouse’s sister calls and says she has to bring her in-laws to your dinner. OK, you can handle that. You calmly think through how you will make the food stretch and then congratulate yourself for staying calm. Then you explain the problem to your spouse and ask her or him to go the store to buy whatever you will need to feed the extra guests. He or she responds, “Oh, I forgot to tell you. I have to work “just for a few hours.” Now, you are angry. Then, feeling angry, you don’t watch what you are doing and accidentally drop the pie you’ve just baked. That’s it! You are now furious!

Most of us have had similar experiences. We feel so proud when we calmly weather the first problem. Our unspoken expectation is, “OK, I’ve had my test and passed it. Now I deserve smooth sailing for the rest of the day.” Unfortunately, life often doesn’t cooperate. In fact, the more you want an occasion to go perfectly, the more likely you are to tense up, over-react to problems, and in your heightened emotional state, even cause some problems.

Now imagine the same scene, but this time you’ve reminded yourself to expect five disasters. When your spouse’s sister calls, that’s disaster #1. You’re still expecting 4 more. Next, your spouse informs you that he or she has to work rather than helping you prepare to feed all of your guests. That’s disaster #2. Expecting three more disasters, you remain calm. Remaining calm, you firmly grasp the pie, averting disaster #3. Then, you ask your spouse to help you figure out how to get the extra food and still have time to finish the rest of the dinner preparations. With both of you cooperatively focused, you both realize that your sister–in-law could bring some of the food and your spouse agrees to call her. So, you’ve had only two disasters, and you’ve solved one of them. You are doing wonderfully, and you can still afford three more disasters!

What happens in the possible, but unlikely event that you experience more than five disasters in one day? Some people have reported that they were so amazed that more than five big problems could occur in one day that, rather than becoming upset, they simply marveled that so much could go wrong so quickly. When less than five disasters happen during the day, a much more likely scenario, you can celebrate your good fortune and congratulate yourself for experiencing such a marvelous holiday!

At holiday time, we do a lot for others. We buy gifts for people. We invite people to our home. We decorate our homes to welcome them, and we make them special meals. The holidays are a time to focus on others, right? Yes...and no! The holidays are a special time for all of us. All too often, however, in our efforts to do enough for others, we end up feeling over-worked, under-appreciated and left out of the fun. Focused on the special people in our lives, we forget that we are special, too. So, how do you have a holiday where everyone, including you, is appreciated and celebrated? The answer is: Include yourself in the plans.

You can do this a number of ways. One way is to let your family members know what you are planning. Or better yet, include them in the planning sessions. Then you can all decide what kind of help is needed and who will provide it. Does the extra table need to be brought in from the garage, cleaned and set up? Who can best do that? Do you have a lot of shopping to do? Who can come with you and help get the shopping done faster. Do you feel like you get stuck in the kitchen while everyone else is laughing together in the living room? Ask your favorite people to either help you in the kitchen, or just come talk with you while you get things ready.

Are you feeling that including yourself in the plans just isn’t right? Do you think you are supposed to single-handedly make the holiday special for others? If you’re someone who thinks you have to do all the work while your guests have all the fun, try this exercise: Spend some time talking about yourself in the third person. Yes, that’s right, call yourself by your name instead of saying “I”. Why? Because doing so will remind you that you are a person, too. You have needs just like everyone else. You deserve to enjoy yourself and have fun just like everyone else. For some people, “I” becomes the first letter in the word, “invisibility”. Don’t let that happen to you!

These are just some examples of what you can do to include yourself in your holiday plans. Whatever your situation, think creatively and find a way to enjoy your holiday along with everyone else. You deserve it!

These three strategies will help you get through the holidays, and any other potentially difficult day, with your sense of humor in place and a natural smile on your face. Try them out. Make them a habit. They’ll improve your experience and add peace and joy to your life.

Author's Bio: 

Marcia Cannon, Ph.D., is the author of The Gift of Anger: 7 Steps to Uncover the Meaning of Anger and Gain Awareness, True Strength, and Peace. Marcia's doctoral dissertation focused on a successful, controlled study of the gift-of-anger process, her 7-step protocol for using your anger as an inner healing tool and a guide to your own hidden wisdom. Study participants reported positive changes including increased self-appreciation and inner strength, and a greater ability to calmly handle life’s difficulties. In her years of teaching the gift-of-anger process, clients and workshop participants have consistently reported these same positive results. For more information about how you can use the gift-of-anger process, visit