Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa … whichever you celebrate, they are all around the corner. Very soon the holidays will be in the air, in the stores, on the radio, on TV, on our minds.
Every year at this time, my clients tell me how they wish last year’s holiday season had been, how they hope it could be this year – and how they fear it actually will be.
We hope that everyone gets along and that there aren’t any arguments. We hope the food is delicious and conversation meaningful. We hope old traumas don’t get triggered and the usual hurtful comments go unsaid.
But what if we flip that narrative around?
What if, instead of worrying about everything that could go wrong, we go into the season confident that whatever happens, it will be all right. Adopt the belief that we are already enough — a good enough parent, a good enough daughter or son, a good enough host or cook, a good enough friend.
Then, what if we take a step further and just assume that everyone around our table is good enough, too? This could be a struggle. You may have to ignore a lot. But surely, you can look around that table and find that if nothing else, everyone there is perfectly human.
Perhaps then, our experience unfolds that night in a way where we end up not only tolerating the possible stressful moments but actually enjoying ourselves. What we pay attention to is what we get. At the holidays, and every day, we can expect that there will be wonderful moments and some aggravation.
We can expect some letdowns, some derogatory personal comments, some unfortunate political comments. But that doesn’t mean we have to fix the fights that others pick and the hurts they cause.
We don’t even have to respond. We can just walk away. Because it’s not all about us.
However dysfunctional our families may be, chances are we can find something right if we look for it. If you don’t expect a holiday dinner to transform lifelong family dynamics, you won’t be disappointed when it doesn’t happen.
If it’s transformation you seek, find it within. Look past the dysfunction, troubles and tragedies, and remember that we are all struggling with something.
Sometimes there are hurts and traumas that cannot be forgiven. But can you give yourself permission to set them aside for a few hours?
For those times when no amount of optimism seems to help, here are some tools to keep handy:
Deep breathing helps calm your nervous system and provides a kind of time-out. Try a silent mantra, like “I am here and I am OK.” Stay grounded.
Have an excuse ready if you need to flee the table, and deploy it before you have to leave in a huff or in tears. Feign a gastric disturbance. Make your phone alarm go off. You can think of something.
Does your family have a kids’ table? Sit there and avoid the politics talk.
For those well-meaning but tactless individuals who seek to pry into your life, here’s a script: “Thanks so much for your concern but this is a hard time for me and I’d rather not talk about it now, but I’ll let you know if that changes.”
Deflection is powerful. If anyone throws shade on your appearance, try: “Oh, I actually love what I am wearing and you look great, too!”
Remember that great Nina Simone lyric: “You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love is no longer being served.” If you already know this is your situation, give yourself the gift of staying home, or finding another table to grace. If it becomes your situation halfway through dinner, refer back to Tip 2.
Wishing you a holiday season where you can feel some gratitude and joy and love and permission to do what’s right for you. And may we all enter the holiday season knowing we are going to be OK.
Tracey Frank Ellenbogen is a mindfulness based psychotherapist and insight meditation teacher in Philadelphia and Narberth. She provides both individual and group meditation instruction. For more information, go to www.traceymsw.com.