“Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” ~ Sun Tzu
The ‘festive’ season is typically associated with additional stress. There’s the usual suspects – money for example. Increased expectations for treats and gifts can make us feel overwhelmed by financial obligations and the knowledge that a debt tidal wave is likely to arrive in January. But today I want to talk about the stress that can come from the festivities themselves.
Any time you bring together people who don’t see each other all year, and expect them to co-habitate in a small environment where everyone has high expectations, is destined for a little added stress.
In a word, resistance.
Today I’m going to share with you some tips for surviving these additional pressures, and even – just maybe – enjoying yourself a little bit!
What we can learn from ocean swimmers…
Have you ever been caught in a rip?
I haven’t, but I have family members who surf, and a four-year-old. So I’ve tried to educate myself on the perils of swimming in the ocean.
I’d like to suggest that a rip-current at sea is a useful metaphor for emotional currents that can draw us in, engage all of our energy and attention, sap us of our joy, and ultimately leave us feeling like we just don’t want to do that ever again.
In researching this article, I found this fabulous infographic about surviving a rip-current at sea.
The simple seven steps included in it are useful here too:
- Identify the rip current (ideally before you enter it!)
- Exit while you’re still in shallow water
- Remain calm
- Call for help if you’re a poor swimmer
- Swim parallel to the shore to escape the current
- Conserve energy when necessary
- Once out of the current, swim diagonally toward the shore
How does this apply to emotional rip-currents?
“Just as a puppy can be more of a challenge than a gift, so too can the holidays.” ~ John Clayton
What is an emotional rip-current?
Have you ever noticed that there are some people who regularly suck you into their emotional state? They prod you, push your buttons, try to get you to sympathise or commiserate with something that doesn’t seem worthy of the energy, or consistently find something (or worse – someone) to complain about. They involve you in a negotiation that should have been handled directly with the person concerned.
In other words, they try to get you to invest in their drama.
Now here’s the issue.
If you go along with their drama, you end up washed out to sea, miles from shore. Now clearly this isn’t literal, but it could mean you say something your wish you hadn’t, or worse, you do something that has knock-on consequences for your enjoyment of the remainder of the holiday season! Maybe even beyond.
Resisting an emotional rip-current is exhausting…
…and almost always futile.
“Holidays in general breed unrealistic expectations. The minute you start wondering, ‘is it going to be wonderful enough?,’ it never will be.” ~ Pepper Schwartz
People don’t engage you in their drama because they want you to solve their problems! They identify themselves by those problems. If you made them go away, they’d lose their sense of self!
And if you’ve ever tried this approach, you’ll know that as soon as you propose a credible viable solution, the problem quickly morphs into something different, that isn’t so easily resolved.
Trying to swim against the tide is mentally and emotionally draining, and will quickly suck all the joy from your festive occasion.
So what should I do?
Remember those seven points for surviving a rip-current at sea? Let’s see if they help us at all!
Identify the rip-current (ideally before you enter it)
Before the big day (or days) arrive, spend a little bit of time preparing mentally for the guests you know will be there. Are any of them likely to try and recruit you into their drama? Is there a track record of taking sides and creating divides?
Figure out where the danger lies and try and develop a strategy that enables you to avoid it completely. Maybe even make some commitments to yourself about what you will and won’t do or say!
If you find yourself in a rip-current, exit while you’re in shallow water
Makes sure you have an exit strategy to deploy at the first sign somebody is trying to drag you in. If you’ve done your preparation beforehand this should be easier.
Some go-to phrases (delivered good-naturedly) might work. Like “hey Aunt Betty, don’t drag me into this!” Or “Mum, you know you can talk to Nana directly, right?”
If you are still in the shallows, you can escape the current, but once you’re in deep, resistance is futile! So ensure you stay alert and mindful!
“Remain calm, serene, always in command of yourself. You will then find out how easy it is to get along.” ~ Paramahansa Yogananda
To be honest, this is good advice for practically every situation. But it’s particularly true when the emotional stakes are high!
The first thing is to accept the situation. You know resistance won’t get you anywhere. And a calm mind will be better equipped for two important things:
- Avoiding emotional investment (remember the other person will do everything within their power to drag you in) and
- Strategising and planning for escape at the earliest possible moment
Try to become slightly detached from the situation if you can. As though you are watching yourself rather than reacting. If you have a regular mindfulness practice, this will be a lot easier.
Be present. Don’t focus on bad memories or the long-term consequences of the situation as it unfolds… just try and avoid resistance, and look for those potential windows to exit the situation.
Call for help…
It’s highly unlikely you’re going to find a ‘life-guard’ around the family dining table on Christmas Day, but you could arrange an SOS text with a friend who won’t be in attendance, or a safe word with your significant other (assuming they aren’t the cause of your distress of course), safe in the knowledge that it’s there if you need it.
Swim parallel to the shore to escape the current
The emotional equivalent of this is changing the subject.
It’s a good idea to prepare some interesting anecdotes or stories that you can pivot to when it looks like the conversation is heading in an ‘unsafe direction’.
Check out Facebook, or the local newspaper, or your favourite magazine. Build a repertoire of four to six stories and commit the key points to memory. Think of it as an opportunity to practice those public speaking skills! Get the whole family engaged in the story, and it will be harder for Uncle Fred to dominate the conversation with his complaints!
Conserve energy when necessary
Leave the scene if you have to… help with the dishes, take the kids out for a walk, walk the dog, get started on clearing up the dishes. Anything to reserve your energy and stay on the emotional level!
Once out of the current, swim diagonally for the shore…
Once you have successfully diverted the conversation or changed the subject, be mindful of not inadvertently steering it back in an unhelpful direction. If the favourite drama of the day seems to be hassling Aunt Selma for not having a job, avoid work stories… if the problem is your Mum complaining about not having as much money as she’d like, avoid talking about financial matters…
There’s no point making life any more challenging than it has to be!
“Snow and adolescence are the only problems that disappear if you ignore them long enough.” ~ Earl Wilson
To be very clear, the advice for surviving a rip-tide doesn’t make the rip-tide go away. It manages the symptoms – rather than treating the cause.
If you have ‘untreated’ emotional drama in your family, the time to resolve these probably isn’t on Christmas Day in front of the whole extended family… but that doesn’t mean you should avoid it altogether.
There are plenty of days in the year that have normal levels of emotion and lower expectations attached to them. Like a regular Tuesday afternoon, for example.
Create a plan to discuss the matter directly with the person (not through any third parties) and do it. Just not in the middle of the holiday season!
Here’s to a joyous and drama-free festive season!
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