Story by Stephanie Seng, director of CSU’s Center for Family and Couple Therapy
“… It’s clear that struggle doesn’t take off for the holidays. The gremlins don’t go on vacation. Checks bounce, chemotherapy appointments are scheduled, relationships keep unraveling, being alone feels even lonelier, and the ‘never enough’ is in full swing.” In a 2015 Facebook post, Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and a well-known author, describes an unavoidable truth about the holidays. She goes on to share her strategy for navigating that truth. “As I prepare to spend the next few days with my family and friends, I’ve decided to find my holiday magic in the mess; to practice love and gratitude with the special group of folks who keep showing up and loving me, not despite my vulnerabilities, but because of them.”
Stress during the holidays
While the holidays can fill our lives with joy, they can also lead to feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, and other difficult emotions.
In a 2015 Healthline survey, over 60 percent of adults across all age groups reported feeling stressed over the holidays. Time, expectations, relationships can all contribute to the increased stress that, in turn, contributes to mixed emotions during the “happiest time of the year.”
Brené Brown, known for her research and writing about vulnerability, taps into emotional intelligence to manage the challenges of the holidays. Emotional intelligence, brought to attention in 1995 by Daniel Goleman, is the ability to identify and manage emotions. Emotional intelligence is not a personality trait, but a skill we can develop to help manage the holidays.
Be aware of yourself
Emotionally intelligent people practice self-awareness and self-regulation. During the holidays, allow yourself time to feel your emotions, all the good, all the bad. Like Morrie Schwartz, from Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie says, pull them on “like a familiar shirt.”
Notice the butterflies in your stomach or the tension in your neck. Experience it without judgment or a need to fix it. Use relaxation and calming strategies such as deep breathing and grounding as you try to identify the emotion and understand its meaning.
Be aware of others
The ability to extend awareness and regulation to others is another skill of emotional intelligence. Pay attention to the emotional experience of those around you. Use empathy to try to understand how they are feeling and consider multiple perspectives.
Offer grace and forgiveness. Co-regulate. Co-regulation simply means to manage your emotions together with another. Often when a loved one is upset, our emotions escalate as well, leading to tension, arguments, stress, and misunderstanding. Remaining calm in the midst of another’s emotional distress, allows us to create a supportive environment that can help de-escalate the difficult emotion.
Focused on goals, flexible on means
Through it all, keep your goals in mind. An important part of emotional intelligence is knowing your motivation and remaining hopeful in its pursuit. If something is causing you stress, ask yourself why that thing is important. Is there another way to accomplish the same goal with less stress? Would scheduling the large family to get together on a day other than the actual holiday allow the whole family to be together and relieve the tension of having to split time? Could sending a Valentine’s letter rather than a Christmas letter still enable you to share family updates but relieve the holiday time pressure? How could you rethink gift-giving in a way that would allow the joy of giving without financial stress or having to fight holiday crowds?
Develop your emotional intelligence
Finally, emotional intelligence is a skill we can build, and the best time to do that is when you are under less stress. After the holidays, take the time to revisit your emotional experience. When did you feel the happiest, and what brought you joy? When you experienced difficult emotions, what were they? Explore their origin and meaning. What do you think you might do differently next time? Think about times you were able to regulate and co-regulate well. What helped you do that, and how could you use those skills to manage difficult situations in the future.
The struggle doesn’t take off for the holidays, but like Brene’ Brown, we can find magic in the mess by tapping into our emotional intelligence. As Morrie Schwartz would say, “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love and let it come in.”
Stephanie Seng is the director of the Center for Family and Couple Therapy, part of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program in the Colorado State University Department of Human Development and Family Studies. CSU’s Center for Family and Couple Therapy provides high-quality therapy services to families, couples, individuals, adolescents, and children. The CFCT offers services to all members of the Larimer County community, as well as to students, faculty, and staff on campus. Visit the website for more information.