Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Good Advice for Holiday Stress

Who do you want to be this holiday season? HOW do you want to be? Emotional Intelligence -- that's the key. Free coaching mini-sessions during the month of December. Email me at to schedule your time.


Rx for Health , Dr. Susan E. AllenEagle-Tribune—

Several years ago, my husband and I and our college-age children gathered for Thanksgiving dinner around a big table in the home of out-of-state relatives. The details aren't vital, but what is important is that when the four of us left to drive home, we apparently couldn't wait to get in the car and let out a collective and negative "Ahhhhh!"

While the food was great, and we all had more than enough, the mood during the day had been very different from what we would have hoped for on this day of gratitude and thanks. We slipped into disappointment, negativity, even judgment.

We criticized one cousin for talking about himself the whole time, expressed anger at distasteful comments, and generally agreed that this was not a pleasant time for us.

I will always remember that Thanksgiving, and in the years since then, I have not been proud of my own reactions to it. In fact, some of those cousins, aunts and uncles present may well have been just as critical of our ways. This is not unusual among families. It doesn't take a professional to realize the heightened emotional energy that many of us feel at various family gatherings, including weddings, summer vacations, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah. There is arguably nothing more predictable in the field of mental health than the stresses and emotional upheaval that arise every November and December.

As we get older, there are even more new challenges during the holidays. Aging parents. Parents or siblings who have died. New "significant others" in the lives of sons and daughters. Children who have grown and moved away and are not able to be at home for the holidays. Perhaps the pain of divorce or the energy of a newly blended family.

We are challenged over and over again to face difficult relationships along with the easier ones. We are challenged to engage with people who bring out the less likable parts of ourselves as well as those who bring out the best in us. We are challenged to seek reconciliation and acceptance, as well as to feel gratitude.

So, who do you want to be in your family this holiday season? Here are four steps to consider as you anticipate your holiday gatherings:

* Try to have realistic expectations. Marsha Linehan, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, encourages "making friends with reality." Have realistic expectations of what can change and what cannot. This might include learning to live with hurt or pain, and even allowing it to be the catalyst for a transformation of some kind. Approaching a family event this way will likely lead to less disappointment and some nice surprises.

* Use your emotional intelligence. Notice your feelings and manage them in healthy ways. Our emotions give us good information about ourselves, but it's best not to act on all of them. Notice other people's emotions, too. Can you understand why they might feel the way they do? Can you experience both detachment and empathy in your relationships?

* Be values-based. What are your most important values? How are you acting on them or honoring them in your interactions and behaviors? As we get older, we are called to greater depth, integrity and honesty. When you look within, what is really important? Is your demeanor aligned with your core values?

* Lighten up. Is there a chance you can walk away from this year's family gathering and say, "Wow! That was so much fun!"? Think about what would need to happen for you to have those feelings. What steps can you take to make this a possibility? Imagine the even greater possibilities if you share these thoughts with others. Embrace the goal of making this holiday season even just a bit more enjoyable than you had anticipated.

Dr. Susan E. Allen is a life coach and licensed psychologist in Newburyport who specializes in the second half of life. To learn more, visit

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