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To avoid holiday tension, don’t ‘should on yourself’

It may be the most wonderful time of the year but for some, the holidays also usher in extra doses of chaos and stress. After all, there’s all that additional cooking, entertaining, shopping, and other demands that people pile onto their “to do” lists during the seasonal months.

“A lot of time, when we talk about the holidays, difficulties emerge on account of our expectations,” explained Dr. Deborah Barrett, a clinical associate professor at UNC’s School of Social Work. “There’s the pressure around what a holiday is supposed to be. All the ‘Merry This’ and ‘Happy That’ can increase stress.”

In fact, anticipating that family gatherings or holiday meals will resemble a Norman Rockwell painting or some other ideal presented in magazines, movies or on TV can lead to disappointment, Barrett said. Such expectations can be especially frustrating when dealing with friends and family who, perhaps, have been at the center of past grievances.

“What happens is, there are a lot of ‘shoulds’ around the holidays, which leads to a lot of ‘whys’ and disappointment from that,” Barrett said. “You know, ‘Why can’t everyone in my family just get along? Or why isn’t this person here? Or why is this interaction so uncomfortable?”

Although people can attempt to avoid the rude uncle or controlling aunt, practicing a little “mindfulness,” or focusing on the present moment, is one way to survive the holidays, Barrett said. Embracing acceptance, even for a few hours, may help to improve the experience.

“The acceptance piece doesn’t mean that you have to like or approve of the behavior or situation,” Barrett said. “It just means that you acknowledge ‘what is’, rather than getting stuck on what you wish it were or think it ‘should’ be.”

Mindfulness, Barrett added, is about “experiencing a moment as it enfolds, as effectively and nonjudgmentally” as possible. “If you think of the holiday as a banquet table—it’s your choice whether to focus on the bounty or on a dish you see as flawed or missing.”

Choosing how to handle uncomfortable family dynamics can be challenging. But if a few awkward moments occur? Consider acknowledging another’s feelings to help alleviate the tension in the room, Barrett said.

“Rather than getting pulled into an argument, see if you can validate the person’s emotional experience,” she said. “The beauty is that you can do this authentically without engaging in the content. Something like, ‘It sounds like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders,’ or ‘This is really distressing for you,’ often defuses the situation. The other person feels better because he or she’s been heard, and then you can move on to something else.

“So again, you have the choice. Another’s comments may look like an invitation to struggle or fight, but it doesn’t have to be.”

Mindfulness is also a good way of warding off depression, especially during the holidays when thoughts often turn to lost loved ones or again to unrealistic expectations. Acknowledging feelings, including grief, are important, as well as seeking help if needed. But it’s also good to keep in mind that no matter how bad a moment is or seems, it will pass, Barrett said.

“Sometimes, those are the moments when it’s best to stop and take a breath, or go for a walk or attend to something you find pleasant or at least neutral.” she said. “By slowing things and letting yourself quiet down, you have a greater opportunity to respond deliberately. You can also choose to attend to the people and things you truly enjoy.”

Ultimately, approaching the holidays with gratitude for “what is” rather than worrying about what “should be” is a great way of enhancing your experience and avoiding unnecessary pressure and demands, Barrett added.

“You can be aware of the (shoulds) and capture them,” she said, “but do your best not to ‘should on yourself.’ ”

Dr. Barrett is giving a talk at Meadowmont Aging in Place in Chapel Hill on Dec. 13 from 3-4 p.m., on “A Mindful Approach to the Holidays: Strategies to Cope Ahead and Appreciate the Moment.” It is free and open to the public.