This is the year you’ve been loyal and committed to some deep, personal work. You’ve faced your inner demons, slayed your dragons, shown up to more therapy sessions than you can count. With the holiday season and year-end in sight, overwhelming tins of sugary sweets, a Santa on every block, and one too many visits with your family could chip away at the integrity of your growth. Give yourself a Christmas gift, early, by reflecting on the following 12 guideposts to preserve how far you’ve come so you can be ready to carry on your precious journey in the New Year.
#1 Boundaries & Expectations.
Whatever your upcoming holiday, you don’t have to be a vapid ooze of limitless Halloween smoke that pours out endlessly wherever it’s needed. Put a cork in it and protect all your hard-earned healing work. Having and communicating boundaries and expectations truly can be a lifesaver to avoid an emotional setback during the holiday season. What are you realistically capable of this season? This includes what you expect from yourself and others, and what your family expects of you. Communicating your boundaries ahead of time is a win-win for all. Be clear and concise. Don’t give tons of reasons and justifications. You don’t owe anybody that. If your family questions or challenges these, rehearse the following: “I can’t say yes to your request right now, but I promise to let you know if that changes”, and then swiftly change the subject.
#2 Consider Family Visit Lengths.
If you’re traveling to see your family, or your family is coming to you, get clear and real about how much time you think you can be away from home, or have guests in your home. If your goal and priority is to protect the progress you’ve made in your healing, better to get clear and honest about this ahead of time, rather than have to heal (or re-heal) the damages from unrealistic amounts of time spent with your kin. Scheduling shorter visits with your family doesn’t mean you don’t love them – this limit is a refocusing of energy toward the quality of the connection in your time spent together, rather than allowing the quantity of time itself be the way we demonstrate our love. If your family challenges your length of stay, try this line: “I know it is disappointing that we can’t stay longer; let’s prioritize the quality of time over the quantity of time we have together. Here are my ideas … “ And then go on to describe coffee in front of the tree, a new present-opening tradition (my family claps after each gift is opened), and a cozy, bundled-up winter walk to look at the lights in your neighborhood. Have fun with this. Your family and friends will love that you put thought into your special time together.
#3 Prepare For Potential Surprises Ahead of Time.
I’ve heard some horror stories from my clients about what they thought a holiday was going to entail, only to show up and find a surprise or expectation they were neither told about nor comfortable with. “I signed us up for a 12-mile cross-country day trip tomorrow!” … “We’re fostering 6 puppies, I totally spaced on your allergy to all things four-legged” … “We have ten guests instead of three, I need you to get up at 5am and help prepare!” … “I invited my neighbor as a blind date for you”… “The turkey is actually tofu!” These are the sudden stressors that can send you into a tailspin you could’ve otherwise prepared for. Ask your family what the plans and expectations are: How will the meals work? What are the sleeping arrangements? What is the schedule of events? Are you depending on me for cooking, babysitting, diaper changing, decorating, cleaning, or shopping? Who all is coming? When will they be arriving and leaving?”
The more informed you are, the more enjoyable the holiday will be. Predictability and routine are vital if you’re in a tender spot in your healing journey, the holidays trigger you, you get stressed by travel, or you need to prepare to set boundaries about what is expected of you. Get this info as soon as you can. Check in a few days prior to make sure nothing has changed dramatically and your previously planned stay-at-home, eat mom’s turkey and fall asleep in front of the TV Thanksgiving hasn’t turned into a sunrise bear-hunting excursion with your noisy, drunk uncles who arrived back from their Alaska trip early.
#4 Plan Responses For Difficult Questions.
I had a family member who just loved to comment on how much weight everyone had or hadn’t lost directly to their faces. I was never spared an evaluation. I would crumple under the discomfort and sheer awkwardness of trying to craft a response that wasn’t, “I’m so glad you think I look better” or “Here are all the ways I’m exercising daily [to avoid horrible conversations like this one]”. Brutal and unfair. Other uncomfortable questions and statements include: “How’s the counseling going? How’s your marriage? When are you gonna have kids? How’s that awkward, sad, heartbreaking situation with your boss, neighbor, kid, partner you’ve vaguely referenced on the phone, social media, text message recently?”. The worst. Don’t borrow trouble guestimating possible, horrible, awkward-moment questions. Do be prepared to have a canned response that will keep your information safe and divert the conversation elsewhere. Consider these simple kinds of responses for similar topics you just don’t want to talk about: “I prefer not to discuss that, this visit. Would you like to watch the parade?” …“I hadn’t noticed (that weight loss/gain you just mentioned). Where did you get that beautiful holiday sweater?”. And, the easiest, simplest of all, repeat after me: “that subject matter (of my weight loss, hair loss, traumatic incident, recent arrest, sex change, job change, fertility issue, mistaken tattoo on my forehead) is private and sensitive to me so I prefer not to discuss it, but thank you for being interested in my life. Would you like to finish this puzzle with me?”. Awesome. Honest. Onward.
#5 Communicate With Your Partner.
Your S.O. likely already knows how you are around the holidays. (If you don’t think they do, ask). Take time to name what gets your knickers twisted into a holiday pretzel during the season’s festivities and enlist your darling in a support role. Naming your feelings and experiences helps cut the stress associated with them: “Our neighbor get under my skin” … “I feel so uncomfortable with my parents’ arguing” … “my sister can’t mind her own business” … “the kids will be ungrateful and rude”. Let your partner in on the particular triggers and barbs that have the potential to un-do all your personal growth and healing. They’ll be more than happy to help. Expecting your love to fix or change the situation is not the goal, here, but instead to request they join with you in carrying some of the emotional load. This also totally counts for best friends, siblings, and other safe humans in your precious world.
#6 Comfort Object.
Select a physical item, big or small, that is a source of comfort and safety to you and serves as a reminder of the healing journey you are on. There are no rules, here, except to choose an object that translates to a physical and spiritual feeling of safety, comfort and grounding in your body and heart. A cozy sweat shirt; a coffee mug you love; a piece of nature; a mound of putty to knead through your hands; a candle; your favorite bobble-head character that says to you, ‘you got this, my friend … now bobble head with me for a sec before you head back into the kitchen for a slice of your cute granny’s pie”. For me, my comfort object is a small pink rock with a white ribbon that runs through the middle – the rock is smooth and shaped like a heart. I carry it around in my pocket. It sits on my bedside or under my pillow at night and reminds me to stay present with my center. Choose your comfort object now as you get your heart and spirit ready for the season. Tip: More than one comfort object is A-OK! Turn it into a kit.
If you’ve had a traumatic life event on or around a holiday, you know that the trauma usually syncs with that holiday. Or perhaps you have a big trauma you’re working through right as the holidays hit. A container is an imaginative experience to visualize storing the tidal wave of symptoms like flashbacks, body sensations, and emotions that can knock you sideways. The idea is to pick a safe place to store the distress so it doesn’t become an extra guest on your New Year’s Day celebration. Choose a container from your imagination: anything strong and big enough to contain that overwhelming panic attack or the heavy pull of grief that hits you all of a sudden. Once you’ve filled your oak-wooded hutch or steel-grade crate with that memory of losing your child, getting a cancer diagnosis, leaving your spouse, put a lid on it and choose a beach, planet, island, mountain, valley, closet, or cave to bury, store, or shelve the container you’ve chosen to now safely and lovingly hold for you what could otherwise send your holiday spiraling. Set a protector over your container—an imaginative or real life person, figure, or spiritual being. This could be your German Shepherd, Wonder Woman, Captain America, your big brother, or a life-size version of your son’s toy tank. Imagine placing your protector on top of or in front of wherever you’ve stored your container. You can unpack this guy when you’re in the safety of your own space, with a friend or in your therapist’s office. Until then, let your protector manage those overwhelming experiences that are now inside the container while you and your kiddos relax with a cup of hot cocoa. Tip: this tool works for big emotions and reactions that aren’t just to do with trauma, and kids will love it too.
#8 Review Your Spiritual Values.
Connecting with your own spiritual roots or beliefs this season might be just the thing your tender, mending heart needs to get through. Perhaps you’ve begun a meditation practice, recently, or certain aspects of the Catholic mass bring you a sense of comfort during the holidays. This is the time to center on how your heart connects in a spiritual way. Spirituality is about rooting into something that is bigger than you, and binds you with other humans around you. Finding small ways to engage in a daily spiritual practice can be grounding, empowering, nurturing and healing. Connection to and abiding in a spiritual experience – centering prayer, loving-kindness meditation, attending services – can protect you from some of the stressors that exist. Consider the spiritual experience of connecting with the natural world whose rhythms and themes at the end of the year are about rest, peace, calmness and gentleness: get outdoors, look at the sky, touch the snow, be reminded that the earth is our home not just during the holidays, but always, and will be there waiting for you when the new year turns over.
#9 Self-Care, Quick and Easy.
I talk about self-care as a basic human dignity. You generate a natural practice of self-care by treating yourself like a human who has worth and is of equal value to everyone else. And you take care of yourself accordingly. Just because the holiday stress has arrived does not mean you compromise your value and worth; those are constants about you and should never be sacrificed just to squeeze in one more crazed present-buying excursion to the mall, for instance. So: stay warm, drink plenty of water, move your body, say no (it is a complete sentence), sleep enough, take time to yourself, meditate, be in nature, and avoid too much sugar, alcohol, and other overwhelming sensory experiences. Write down your holiday self-care plan and begin the practice now so your inner world recognizes the care you have to give to your sweet self when the stressors get high. Mine has a mantra that goes to the tune of: “I am a human being of dignity and worth; I take care of whole self everyday because I deeply love and approve of myself”.
#10 Have An Emergency Plan.
Hopefully if you follow these tips, your holidays will be absent a full-on freak out about all the things and you can resume your healing work where you left off as soon as the ball drops. But we live in a real world of possibilities where life outside our control can happen whenever and wherever. Don’t expect a personal crisis or emergency; do plan for one.First, know your emotional crisis scale that maps the rise in feelings and tells you when you’re getting close to a double-sided meltdown: 1 – all is well, I’m happy as a clam. 5- I’m feeling some feels and should proceed to some self-care. 8-10ish: I’m emotionally flooded, my container’s not working, and I’m prepared to have a full-on freak out that will undo much of what I’ve worked for to date. Have an on-call phone-a-friend. This is a close, safe buddy you can text or call with a ‘safety word’, which you previously decide together translates as, “I’m at a 9 and about to flush the ham down the toilet, before crumbling into a puddle of my own gin-soaked tears”. Ask your therapist what his/her availability will be. Make an exit strategy if you need to get away. Write down the specific actions to take that will de-escalate your symptoms so that you can ground and re-join your holiday excursion, or at least interrupt the damage early, count your losses, and move on before your inner circumstances become much worse.
#11 Enjoy Your Holiday, Enjoy Your Family, Enjoy Yourself.
Despite the challenges in past holiday seasons, and which ones may lie ahead, think about this year as an opportunity to begin fresh. Take time to review the changes you’ve made in your life as a result of the beautiful, courageous, healing work you’ve done. Out of that reflection, determine how to adapt those changes to your holiday season. Maybe you won’t overspend on gifts, because you’ve learned that joy doesn’t exist in material things. You’ll adopt a gratitude practice instead. Maybe you don’t argue with your mother this year, because which brand of canned cranberries served at the kid’s table just doesn’t matter; you’ll let her choose this year. Maybe you volunteer on Thanksgiving instead of overdoing it with a big obnoxious feast, because new inner feelings of fulfillment inspire you to give back. These new commitments are a chance to experience authentic joy. What are experiences and qualities you like, appreciate, and bring joy from the holidays, your family members, and your relationship with yourself? Do you want to spend more time with your funny old Uncle who’s got family stories to boot? Is there a new practice in your own life you want to teach and share with your family? Will the fall leaves or winter snow be a chance to commune with the natural world? In spite of holiday stress, can you revel in how much more you like and approve of yourself these days?
Finally, go through each of these guideposts and write down the commitments you’re making to each. Write a quick note to yourself about how these will nourish and nurture your journey of personal healing and growth. Remember to hold these commitments loosely, dear one – life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful.
Whatever your holiday plans, be blessed, be warm, and be well. xo