One-on-One: Relationship Stress

Q: I love the holidays, but I always seem to get so stressed that it detracts from the fun. Any advice?

David Niven: It's natural to have high expectations for the holidays. You're spending time with loved ones, and your mindis filled with some of your happiest memories of childhood. But wanting to have enough time to do everything, and wanting everythingyou do to be perfect, can eat away your enjoyment.Step 1: Realize this is not a test. You're not trying to beat some holiday wonderfulness standard as depicted in the movies or in your own hazy memories.Step 2: Remember that, through it all, there is joy around you. When the endless list of things to do has taken over your life, step back and realize that the point of all you are doing is to show your love to family and friends. These social connections are at the very foundation of a satisfying life.Step 3: Say no sometimes. No one you truly value will love you any less because you couldn't make it to their holiday party.Valorie Burton: The key is to make a decision about what you want from your holidays, and let go of many of the external expectationsthat cause stress. If that means you might have to say no to a few invitations or let others know you are scaling back on the gift giving this year, so be it. Do what works for you and your family. Also, don't try to do everything yourself. Be willing to ask for help, whether it's a party you are throwing or Christmas dinnerplans. Focus on what you want to feel during the holidays' and engage in activities and traditions that will give you that.

Q: I'd like to use the holidays as an excuse to connect with neighbors, business associates and co’workers. What do you suggest?

Amanda Gore: I am not sure I would say excuse, but if it's a feeling from your heart that you would like to connect more, perhaps you can create gifts for them. Make jams, food or thoughtful gifts with love and offer them. People are usually very touched. Accompany the gift with a note telling them what they mean to youand how they have made a difference in your life the last year. These sincere gifts from the heart connect more than most activities you might do.

If the thought of making anything fills you with dread, just write the note and package it specifi cally. Add a little candy cane to each note or some other fun thing. They will love it. The obvious is to invite them around for a meal and laugh and have a great time, but if that is too much stress, just invite them for a cup of coffee and ask them a lot of questions about themselves and their plans for the holiday. Be present, and listen intently and sincerely. Listening is a rare gift.

V.B.: You don't need an “excuse” to connect with people! Here are a few ideas:1. Plan a holiday get’together for the people you're grateful forin your work and life.2. Attend events you are invited to and have a good time.3. Write a handwritten note or Christmas card with your thoughtful wishes to individuals you most want to connect with.4. Invite others to join you to do something fun: Go ice skating, enjoy a sleigh ride, serve meals in a soup kitchen, or collect Christmas gifts for needy children and deliver them.

The key is to have face’to’face conversations or authentic communication that allows you to connect with the people in both your professional and personal life.

Q: Our family is spread across the country, so holiday time together is precious. Everyone wants to make it perfect, but invariably there's tension—something doesn't go just rightor someone gets on someone else's nerves. How do we prevent this?

D.N.: The first thing to remember is that the difference between a happy person and an unhappy person is not what happens to them; it's how they react. Everybody has imperfect portions of the day, especially during the holiday season. The difference is whether they let that imperfect half’hour block out the joys of the rest of the day.

People who guess positively also have an easier time of the holiday season. When you're confronted by a relative saying something ambiguous like, “I haven't seenyou in a long time,” you can take that as a complaint, an impassive observation or even as an expression of happiness that you're all together. There's no advantage toguessing negatively, so don't.

There's time pressure during these visits, but remember this isn't a football game. The clock won't run out with a winner and a loser. Time enjoyed, no matter how short, isa victory for everyone.

V.B.: 1. Avoid sensitive topics. If you know there are certain issues that elicit their behavior, avoid those issues.2. Recognize the power struggle. The fact that everyone changes their mood when some family members decide to be overly sensitive means that a handful of familymembers are controlling the rest of the family with their antics. Stop letting them push your buttons!3. Respond, don't just react. You know in advance that this issue may come up again this year, so make a plan in advance about how you will respond if some family members become insensitive. This includes talking to other family members about an appropriate response to the situation. For example, if you refuse to engage in an argument, the other person is left talking to himself. Don't take the bait. Keep focused on your goal of a special and joyful holiday.4. Practice. Dealing with difficult relatives isn't easy. Changing your reaction habits can be challenging, but you can do it, especially with the unified support of other family members.

A.G.: The nature of family get’togethers is that people do irritate each other as old family rivalries, issues and memories are revived. I am not sure that one person alone can make the changes, as it needs every person individually taking responsibility and not allowing old patterns to spoil everyone's fun. But if you arethe only one with the consciousness to see what happening, loving and accepting people for who they are and not judging them would be the big (huge, enormous) thing to do!

Prayer also helps! Making people laugh about the situations the past may help, or just making them laugh about something else is a powerful way to defuse tension. Do something silly, or highlight that it is 2008 and not 1972! Start talking about things for which to be grateful or things you have learned along the way. Allow peopleto have some time on their own. Remember, many people don't have all the family present for days on end and having some time away built in can make a difference. Just becauseyou don't see each other a lot, doesn't mean you have to live in each other's pockets the entire time.

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