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6 Ways to Head Off Holiday Angst

Research-based strategies to make the season not just painless but joyful.

This sense of dread can be sparked by various scenarios—an impossible relationship with a hypercritical parent, an unresolved crisis with a sibling or other relative, the aftermath of a fractious divorce, or any other significant emotional fractures. The real question is how to get from here to there without losing your mind, your dignity, or your sense of well-being—and to make your holiday season as painless and, yes, joyful as it can possibly be.

I offer up these strategies, some born out of personal experience, and others drawn from research:

1. Get a bead on your emotions.

Differentiating what you’re feeling will permit you to manage your emotions more effectively. Keep in mind that the playing field isn’t level; some of us are more adept at identifying our emotions than others, which is a key tenet of what constitutes emotional intelligence. Research tells us that the more simplistically you view your feelings, the fewer the options will be open to you in terms of managing both your feelings and your behavior. Figuring our where your hurt ends and your anger begins is key, as is separating out more complex, even contradictory feelings. By differentiating your emotions, you can both prepare yourself for conflict, should it arise, and decide ahead of time how you want to handle it. No one can push your buttons unless you allow it.

Interestingly, being able to differentiate your emotions and attaining emotional clarity—putting what you know about your feelings into a larger context so that you can change your behavior—may be separate skills, as the work of Matthew Tyler Boden and others suggests. Emotional clarity involves reflection on both feelings and the situations which evoked them—which, in turn, prompts changes in behavior.

One woman I asked about her holiday dread told me, “The season used to make me sad because I felt as though all the relationship problems were somehow my responsibility—that either I caused them or, worse, needed to fix them. I know now that my real sadness comes from a feeling of loss, and that the lack of connection in my family isn’t mine to fix. I still go to the family gatherings but with a different attitude toward them.”

If you discover that you are going to the event because you feel too guilty about not going, you need to keep in mind that when we’re motivated by guilt, we’re also more open to being pushed around emotionally.

2. Do a "neediness check."

People are able to make us feel guilty about what we’re doing (or not doing) when we need and want something from them—and many of us become remarkably needy during the holiday season because we more keenly feel the lack of true family, that loving and attuned bunch we didn’t get. Alas, your neediness will set you up to be more reactive than you would be if you wrestled with those emotions ahead of time. Make sure that the ghosts of holidays past aren’t animating your behavior this holiday. The season isn’ t the time to get even or settle the score.

One divorced mother decided to honor her children’s request to have their father (her ex-husband) come to trim the tree. She was able to pull it off because she worked with her therapist to get a bead on her emotions and set her goal as doing this for her kids: “I made the visit short and sweet and focused. No heavy discussions, no nothing.” Another woman decided that this is was the year she was skipping the family gatherings because “I’m not ready to stay out of the drama. Somehow, I always fall for it and it’s been a nightmare, so I’m recognizing what I can’t do and making my excuses. Instead, I’m surrounding myself with friends instead and staying home.”

You can say No to the Rabbit Hole. (Yes, it’s a reference to Alice in Wonderland ) and if, after self-examination, you decide you simply can’t do this again, don’t.

3. Set realistic expectations.

There’s nothing wrong with being hopeful about the holidays, as long as you’re not fantasizing. Your dismissive mom is unlikely to turn into Little Women ’s Marmee, and your eager-to-fight sibling probably isn’t carrying an olive branch. Set your own goals and expectations for a gathering, and keep them real. Avoid the topics you know will escalate into something unpleasant and make a pact with yourself not to rise to the bait. Define what you want to happen in both negative and positive terms, outlining both what you want to avoid and what you wish to achieve.

4. Be clear about limits and boundaries.

You are always free to walk away from the beginning of an argument, or simply tell someone that you don’t care to discuss whatever it is. There’s no need to be rude, just firm: If your mother or father starts in on you in ways that are too familiar for words, you can simply change the subject or excuse yourself and walk into another room. If you think conflict with a specific person is inevitable, try not to find yourself alone with him or her since people tend to mind their manners more when they’ve got company. This isn’t always foolproof but worth trying.

One son decided to go back to family gatherings after an absence of some years because his father was in ill health, and said this: “I prepared myself for what might happen, and my goal was simply to see my dad without getting into World War III. I waffled on the questions I knew were meant to be inflammatory, and kept it simple. I can’t say that the experience was heartwarming but it was relatively peaceful and that was what I was striving for.”

If you feel as though you can’t set boundaries, then perhaps you should consider cutting down the amount of time you spend with the group, or not going at all.

5. Shift your focus.

Research shows that small shifts in perception can yield large benefits in both the management of emotions and changes to behavior. To achieve emotional clarity, in thinking about holidays past and what’s gone wrong, try to see what happened from a distanced perspective, as if they happened to someone other than yourself. The work of Ethan Kross and others has shown, for example, that thinking not of wha t you were feeling but why you were feeling it permits to you to look at what happened without reliving the moment as a focus on what inevitably does. Asking yourself why you felt as you did shifts you into an analytical mode and permits you to see a situation anew. Analyzing why —a sibling was dismissive of your feelings; you felt outnumbered and defensive in the group; your mother was being hurtful—allows you to get to the heart of what happened and, moreover, prepares you to deal with those feelings the next time they happen. Preparing for the holidays and potential stresses allows you to set the ground rules both for your behavior and that of others. Just because it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas doesn’t give anyone a free pass on bad behavior.

And while you’re shifting focus, go ahead and subtract your blessings. I cite this research all the time but it’s because I love it so much: Taking a leaf from It’s A Wonderful Life , specifically the scene in which Clarence the angel shows George Bailey how life would have been for others had he never been born, researchers wondered whether subtracting your blessings—instead of the usual enumeration—would make people feel more grateful. And indeed they did. So, if the holidays have you mulling over what you’re missing, think about what you do have in your life and imagine that those people and situations go missing in your thoughts. Trust me: You will feel better, and more grateful, in moments.

6. Try to shut out cultural judgments.

The seasonal bombardment of songs and images of what family “ought” to look like also amps up the judgments about filial and familial duty. Do what you can to stay out of the fray and try not to let it get to you. Deciding to go it alone on a holiday is up to you, and one of the great things about adulthood is that you get to be what George W. Bush called “a decider.” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) If being alone seems like a consignment to hell, work on wrangling an invite to a friend’s house; there’s no shame in that. Besides, anyone who thinks families are easy and holidays aren’t complicated is someone, in my book at least, whose opinion shouldn’t really matter.

Get yourself ready and no matter what, focus on wresting as much pleasure from the season as you possibly can. Really.

Copyright© Peg Streep 2014

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Boden, Matthew Tyler, Renee J, Thompson, Muge Dizen, Howard Berenbaum, and John P. Baker, “Are Emotional Clarity and Emotion Differentiation Related?” Cognition and Emotion (2013). vol.37, 6, 961-978.

Kross, Ethan, Ozlem Ayduk, and Walter Mischel. “When asking "why" does not hurt: Distinguishing rumination from reflective processing of negative emotions.” Psychological Science, 16, vol.9 (2005), 709-715.

Koo, Minkyung, Sara B, Agoe, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert,” It’s a Wonderful Life; Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 95, no.5 (2008), 1217-1224.