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How to Avoid Holiday Hollering This Year

Learning to respond, not react, is key to harmonious relationships.

Key points

  • Responding is an expression of conscious feelings; reacting is an expression of unprocessed ones.
  • The holidays amplify emotions. Addressing sensitive subjects should be done on your time instead of being forced.
  • If you start to feel triggered, say a simple three-word sentence that creates safety and openness for both of you: "Tell me more."

After several years of being in lockdown, we may have slightly forgotten how to be with each other. Social skills have rusted. Isolation has led many toward mental fragility. Add raging inflation and geopolitical tensions with worldwide implications, and there you have it. It has not been an easy time to be human.

Even long before we entered the dark valley of quarantine and its aftermath, the holiday season has traditionally been a time that gives rise to long-buried grievances: whether it be family- or work-related, we often experience the season of light with less levity than we’d like. Too many things on our plate, time-crunched sensitivity, and sensory overload are the birthplace of conflict.

Perhaps no one understands how to deal with conflict as much as psychologist Edith Eger, a Holocaust survivor who has dedicated her life to improving the lives of others. As a teenager, she experienced the horrors of Auschwitz and survived, developing an understanding that the greatest prison was not the Nazi camps themselves but the human mind. On the way to the concentration camp, while in the cattle car, her mother told her something that has informed the rest of her life: “No one can take away from you what you put in your own mind.” Your attitude, sense of gratitude, memories, and, what she calls "your storehouse of pleasures" are yours and yours alone. No one can rob you of that.

Through her work as a trained psychologist and online course instructor, she teaches people how to engage in deep introspection to find out who they are. In a recent interview, she offered helpful tips to turn a potentially hollering holiday into a harmonious one.

Her main belief is that interpersonal harmony starts by cultivating harmony within. In her view, we need to remind ourselves to respond (conscious, thoughtful expression of our feelings) instead of reacting (an expression of unprocessed feelings).

When triggered by a person’s behavior, she urges us to examine why we feel that way and ask ourselves:

  • Why is this important to me?
  • What belief do I hold to be true that is being pushed or tested?
  • What have I decided I can or cannot do or say that this person’s behavior is illuminating?

If you start to feel the dinner table conversation during the holidays is taking a turn for the worse, ask yourself three questions before responding to the topic:

  • Does it need to be said (ever)?
  • Does it need to be said by me?
  • Does it need to be said by me right now?

And whatever you are about to say, Eger reminds us to express it in a kind way.

Another great tip is to work with time itself. If you know you may be entering conflict territory with family during the holidays, for instance, give yourself permission to respond to things, but on your own time. It is not about running away or being in denial, but rather biding your time until you are ready to engage with the person. You could even wait until after the event to call the person. Perhaps arrange for a personal meet-up, saying you have been reflecting on the conversation and would love a chance to follow up on a few things.

Eger even suggests saying something such as, "You know, I didn’t know how to express this at the time, but I realize I was feeling X, Y, Z when A, B, C happened." If you start to feel triggered, say a simple three-word sentence that creates safety and openness for both of you: Tell me more. It is non-threatening, non-judgmental, and provides a gateway for communication that would not be possible if you remain entrenched in your position. Eger assures us that we can learn to express our feelings rather than being driven by them.

Robin Shear, who runs a consultancy appropriately called Joy to the World Coaching, rightly points out that gratitude is a great source of joy. It’s pretty tough to feel bad and grateful at the same time. While gratitude is key to having a more positive mindset, she reminds us that the holidays can be hard for people who are grieving. Whether it is the loss of a pet or a person, painful life transitions can feel even harder during this time of year.

Like Eger, Shear emphasizes the importance of preparing for these hard conversations with your family and friends. "Be willing to invite people to discuss the parts of the holidays that are less than wonderful," she says. "Being honest about our struggles, while not fun to think about, can be a very necessary step in the healing process. In essence, your willingness to engage in tough conversation could give someone a gift that can’t be put in a box."

The gift of time and thoughtfulness could just be the greatest gift you could give someone this year.

“We are all born to love, and we learn to hate,” Eger concluded. "We can embrace the chance to look critically at our thoughts and analyze if we have chosen hate in our conversations or relationships. By doing this work and pivoting a loving response, we open the door for all to choose and spread love this season with our words and actions."

Eger is right. It is the season of light and love. With a little mental preparation, it can stay that way too.

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