This time of year is full of social gatherings – family meals, holiday parties, work parties, New Year’s parties, etc. It can be a very challenging time of year for people for various reasons, including anxieties surrounding social engagements. People find themselves “forced” to interact with coworkers, family members, friends, and strangers in a myriad of potentially uncomfortable social situations. I often hear people in therapy (and outside of therapy) discuss their dread at having to attend certain gatherings and engage with people who they find to be condescending, inappropriate, awkward, overwhelming, or in some other way negative to be around.
It would be impossible to address (much less help change) in this article all the many reasons why people feel negative emotions regarding social engagements this time of year. However, I hope to bring your attention to the main area you can control within all the potential holiday chaos, which is your internal relationship with someone or something. I spoke in a prior blog post about self-fulfilling prophecies and how our internal narrative about someone else can actually create and maintain a negative relationship with them without us realizing it. Now, as an aside, I recognize that there are individuals in many people’s lives that have caused considerable pain and distress and it can be very hard to be around them and not feel a myriad of negative emotions. What I am advocating though, is an assessment of how you talk to yourself about a situation (e.g., family meal, work party) or a relationship (e.g., “Aunt Jane is such a mean person, she never has anything nice to say.”). Even something as simple as “I really don’t want to go to this party, it is going to be so boring, awkward, etc…” can create such a negative internal relationship with that event that it becomes hard for it to play out otherwise.
If you are going to be attending an event/party, why not spend some energy shifting your narrative and self-talk about it? Each situation or interaction provides an opportunity to overcome a fear, connect to a new person, improve a relationship, or learn something new. Even seemingly mundane thoughts such as “I am so awkward” or “Tom is so weird” can be unhelpful labels that only serve to reinforce negative interactional patterns. You certainly don’t have to spend 20 minutes talking with that cousin who demeans your interests and boasts about their accomplishments, but you also don’t have to spend 24 hours before a holiday family gathering creating and reinforcing anxieties about what could happen, who might say something negative, or whether you might say the “wrong thing” in a conversation. We all have completely subjective, unique relationships with ourselves and others that are worth evaluating and shifting, especially if they create distress and negativity within us. Let other peoples’ emotions and dysfunctions be their own, and you focus on loving/accepting yourself and maintaining an internal peacefulness and stillness regardless of external circumstances. Easier said than done, I know, and it is a process that must be practiced, but at least you are not reliant on others to change in order to feel comfortable, positive, or happy. Uncle John and Aunt Jane might still have an overly impassioned political discussion at dinner, but you will be less prone to being emotionally hijacked by it.
It’s hard to believe that November is here and the holidays are upon us. For many people this is an exciting and joyful time of year, filled with family and friend gatherings, Christmas music on the radio, and Christmas decorations and lights – not to mention attending parties, shopping for presents, decorating the house, and sending out Christmas cards. For other people, these thoughts lead to different emotions. For them, the holidays are filled with grief, stress, anxiety, and dread. They may have experienced death, divorce, lost friendships, or other challenging situations over the past year. Or perhaps they’re already struggling with anxiety or depression or just not content with their life. No matter which of these categories you fall into or if you are somewhere in between, it’s important to approach the holidays intentionally so that the season can be filled with as much peace and calmness as possible.
For many, the fun and excitement of the holidays often bring about increased anxiety, stress, and sadness for those already struggling with generalized anxiety, social anxiety, depression, disordered eating, alcohol and drug use, or conflictual relationships. Most mental health providers agree that one of the biggest sources of stress associated with the holidays is unrealistic expectations. We should get the Christmas cards out, we should have all our shopping done, we should be grateful, and we should be merry. Try not to “should” on yourself. Reframing those should statements and being more forgiving of yourself makes a big difference. The Christmas cards might not get out in time and that’s okay. The shopping will get done eventually. Have you ever not gotten your shopping done?
Here are a few suggestions to focus on now to help make this year’s holidays less stressful and more enjoyable:
· Handle potential stressors sooner rather than later: Figure out your plans in advance and stick to them, try to get stuff done early without going over the top, and be realistic about which tasks and obligations are possible and which are not.
· Take care of yourself: Get enough sleep and exercise and maintain your normal routine as much as possible.
· Do something simple for someone else: Bake cookies for a neighbor you know is going through a hard time, volunteer in your community, or call a friend or family member you haven’t spoken to in a while.
· Be open to new traditions: As life changes, so does the way we celebrate the holidays and those we celebrate with – even your favorite traditions were at one point “new” traditions.
· Laugh: Watch a funny Christmas movie or the latest SNL Christmas special, or tell funny stories about past Christmases or Christmas gifts.
· Give yourself grace: It’s normal to not always feel jolly this time of year, but if you start to feel worse, reach out to a friend or mental healthcare professional.
We have covered taking care of ourselves this holiday season, but what about caring for others? Many people in our community give to others during this time of year in different ways- they give to family, they give to friends, and they give to those less fortunate. I am always amazed at the many ways people in Greenville serve others during the holidays. My goal this holiday season is to also think about those loved ones in my life who may be feeling particularly lonely, sad, anxious, or stressed this year for different reasons. Maybe it’s an old friend you haven’t seen in a while or someone who has lost a loved one recently. Maybe it’s a neighbor who doesn’t have family in the area or simply someone whose day would be made by hearing from you. A simple note or phone call saying “I’m thinking about you this season. How are you really doing?” might make a bigger impact than you could imagine. Letting other people know that you care and that they matter might be the best gift you can give someone this holiday.
I am grateful for you reading this and Happy, Happy Thanksgiving!
Check out this link for some additional ideas especially for those dealing with grief this holiday: https://whatsyourgrief.com/64-tips-grief-at-the-holidays/
In our work as counselors and psychologists, we support clients in their effort to identify relative personal strengths and weaknesses. The resulting self-awareness is a building block towards setting goals for what clients hope to gain from their treatment. When it comes to intellect and ability, accepting one’s place on the bell-shaped curve can be difficult. We live in an individualistic society that uses weighted scales to elevate GPA and gives out blue ribbons for finishing. As a practice, we encourage our clinical and performance clients to set goals and consider how they might grow beyond their current capabilities. At the same time, our psychoeducational assessments, in general, reflect what decades of research prove: most people fall within the average range for intellect and ability.
Unfortunately, psychoeducation is lacking in academic institutions and society at large about what it means to be average. In Liz Bohannon’s book, Beginner’s Pluck, she encourages readers to own their average. “Owning your average is actually a remarkably freeing and powerful acknowledgement because being born inherently gifted or above average isn’t a prerequisite to living an extraordinary life” (Bohannon, 2019). In accepting one’s average range of ability, Bohannon is not encouraging living a life of complacency. Instead, when we free ourselves from the internal dialogue that shames average intellect and ability, we open ourselves up to a better opportunity. The opportunity for a positive redirection of energy. A redirection that allows us to invest more effort towards self-improvement, learning, goal setting, and maximizing our potential.
I think it can be easy to assume all successful or highly influential people are “gifted” or “special.” However, many people with impressive accomplishments to their name fall within the average range of intellect. Personal growth has no prerequisite for unique intellect or ability. No matter where you fall on the bell-shaped curve, your life can be infused with impact, meaning, contentment, and purpose. Average is not an enemy.
Regardless of your particular political, religious, economic, or cultural beliefs, there seems to be little doubt that our society is in a period of uncertainty, unrest, and upheaval. There are a lot of valuable questions being asked about what is important to us, how we want to treat people, and how to structure our society moving forward. There are many viewpoints on these questions, and some people will tell you that they know all the answers. With that in mind, the concept of humility has been a focus of thought and discussion recently as it seems to provide a framework from which to navigate some of the questions and pitfalls of our daily lives.
The author C.S. Lewis is quoted as saying, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” I find this to be a valuable quote as it encapsulates a struggle that I think many of us encounter. In defining our values and pursuing our goals, there is an inherent self-centeredness that is a part of exploring our own journey. Additionally, in order to meet our goals, we must possess a confidence that we are capable, valuable, and perhaps unique in some way. However, this does not mean that we must view ourselves as better than others and that other people have nothing to offer us or teach us. A leader who is humble finds ways to make others better, to build others up, to show gratitude, and to engage in life-long learning because they understand that they are not perfect and that everyone has value.
As the author and activist Bryant McGill once said, “An intelligent person is never afraid or ashamed to find errors in their understanding of things.” When we make mistakes or something does not go as planned it can be easy to blame, become angry, hide, or demean ourselves or others. However, humility teaches us that we are not perfect and there is something to learn from every situation and from each person we encounter. Being able to stay humble regardless of the challenges provided by family, friends, coworkers, bosses, or strangers can be highly beneficial for our mental health because we are less likely to resort to, and remain in, negative emotional states.
In sum, the purpose of this article is simply to encourage some reflection on the concept of humility and its role in our lives. Let us not fall into the trap of believing that we have all the answers and that we know what is best. Let us not become unwilling to admit errors, be vulnerable, or acknowledge fault because it will hurt our ego. We all have things to learn, and if we approach our lives from that perspective, we give ourselves a much better chance of having positive relationships with ourselves and others.
It’s okay if the water is where it is at.
It’s a common assumption that people who demonstrate a more pessimistic viewpoint – “the glass is half empty” – tend to exhibit more negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, anger, and stress. Research studies have supported this theory that negative statements have an adverse effect on emotions. In other words, the more negative statements a person says or thinks, the more likely that person is to feel badly. However, people also then assume is that it is necessary to shift thinking to “glass half full” and to think positively all of the time, a feat that can also be quite challenging and in some cases, too big of a jump for people to achieve. In real life, we all deal with difficult situations, tough moments, and trials. What people may not know is that it’s actually okay, and can be a good thing, to think more realistically. People tend to respond just as well, if not better, to an acceptance approach – “the water is where it is at” in the glass.
For instance, it may be better to change the thought or view “My day today was terrible. Nothing went right.” with something more like “My day had some difficult moments, but there were other parts that I enjoyed,” rather than “I really had a great day,” or “I loved parts of my day.” Or, for example, replacing “I’m going to fail” with “this might be challenging for me” or “I may not achieve my highest goal, but I can still do well,” rather than “I will ace this,” or “It will be great!” The middle statements are much more neutral or realistic than the positive statements, yet at the same time, they offer some hope and are less pessimistic or negatively focused.
Because life really isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, thinking more realistically seems more achievable to most people and also provides an opportunity to build on better thinking and reduce negativity, which is the real problem when considering negative emotions. So the next time you are faced with a difficult moment or thought, try examining where the water actually is, rather than assuming it is too low or pushing yourself to think that it is much higher. The water you have may be just the right amount.
As we move into summer and decompress from the busyness and chaos of the school year, new challenges begin to arise. Instead of worrying about school schedules and deadlines, we now may worry about planning activities, vacations, and making this the “best summer ever!” As we get caught up in the whirlwind that is summer, it can be easy to fall into the trap of comparison and constantly seeking more… more experiences, a better vacation planned, trying to keep up with neighbors and friends. This comparison can affect everyone in the family, from kids and teens comparing their activities to those of their peers to adults trying to keep up with the Joneses regarding vacations and family time, all to pursue happiness and relaxation. However, this constant desire for more or to “one up” can actually have the opposite effect. Instead of seeking more and better, we need to shift our perspective and focus and work towards displaying gratitude for what we have and practicing being content in our current situations.
Research has linked a number of positive effects to regularly practicing gratitude including stronger relationships, better physical health, reduction in depressive symptoms and stress, improved sleep, increased resilience, and improved self-esteem. So how can you practice gratitude and boost your overall well-being? Research has also shown that grateful people have a number of factors in common including: recognizing and feeling a sense of abundance in their lives, appreciating the help of others, recognizing and finding joy from the little things, and acknowledging the importance of expressing gratitude. Below are three practical ways to practice gratitude in your daily life:
Be specific and creative. Each day try to notice five things you are grateful for. Whether you record these in a gratitude journal, use an app such as 365 Gratitude or Grateful, or have a daily family conversation, make it a point to count your big and small blessings. Be specific in your gratitude- don’t just say “I’m thankful for my family”- but instead “I’m grateful that my mother knew I was stressed out so she offered to pick up the kids from camp.” Make it a point to find new things to be grateful for each and every day, even things that initially do not seem positive (e.g. “While I don’t want to go grocery shopping, I’m thankful that I can provide for my family.”)
Give to others. Instead of focusing on what you lack or where you feel as if you do not measure up, focus on what you can do to help others. When we focus on others, it puts our own problems into perspective and allows us to reflect on things that we may otherwise take for granted. It can help us remember how fortunate we are and allow us to see beyond ourselves and our own struggles and frustrations.
Stop comparing and surround yourself with positivity. Shift your focus from what everyone else has to what you have. When we focus on what we lack, we not only experience negative feelings (frustration, shame) but we also miss out on opportunities for growth. Instead, focus on the positives in your life. Similarly, when we surround ourselves with negativity or people who are set on comparison, it does not allow us to experience peace and joy in the current moment. Choose to focus on the things that bring you joy and surround yourself by people who bring happiness.
“Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions. The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.” – Zig Ziglar