When the Going Gets Tough, Get Kind
For many folks, the holiday season can be both a time for festivities, a time of increased stress. Have you noticed that when you're feeling anxious and stressed, you're often even harder on yourself than usual? Even though your rational mind might recognize that being human involves ups and downs, your emotional truth can feel very different. There can be a sense of pressure to live up to vague expectations about having it all together and under control.
Maybe you have an unrealistic belief that you should feel good all the time, that you can control what happens to you, and that you wouldn't have to experience the impact of loss or change if only you made the "right" choices. Often, this way of thinking comes from a "young" part of us that believes that "When I feel bad, it's because I am bad or I did something wrong." It can be very difficult to unblend the state of feeling "bad" from the belief that you are "bad" and that you are to blame for feeling the way you do.
Or, you might struggle with a very common belief that if you're not hard on yourself, you'll stay stuck in this challenging state indefinitely. Perhaps you are even aware that the opposite is true. As Carl Rogers, a pioneer in humanistic psychology said, "The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change." The trouble seems to be that even if you are aware of this truth on a cognitive level, it can be very difficult, in the heat of a self-critical moment, to access a capacity for self-acceptance.
So, how can you be kind, when the going gets tough? Below are some practical suggestions.
1. Remember: Your best is going to change from moment to moment. For example, if you are visiting family for the holidays, you may notice that your fuse is shorter, and you are not able to be as patient or compassionate as you thought you were. Nearly all of us are subject to the strong pull of family dynamics when we are with the people we grew up with. Recognize that you are doing your best, and that your best when you are under stress is different from your best when you are feeling more easeful.
2. Get curious. I often say, curiosity is a potent form of kindness. If you notice yourself feeling frustrated with yourself or a family member, first acknowledge your feelings. Then, see if you can contact your innate curiosity. For example, try saying to yourself, "I'm frustrated. This feels so familiar and I'm so tired of getting stuck here. I wonder what this is really about?" You don't have to have an answer; this is more about ventilating the situation and opening up the possibility that there's something you don't yet know about it. Some truth for you to discover.
3. Remind yourself: Just because I feel "bad" doesn't mean I did anything wrong. If you notice that your inner critic has a lot to say about how you are communicating with loved ones over the holidays, remember that you are doing the best you can, and that you are not alone. Spending time with family is challenging for many, many people.
4. At the same time, be willing to acknowledge the impact of your choices. Ask yourself, "To be both kind to myself and accountable for my actions means __________________ ." You can hold this as an open question, and you can also notice what response arises. Being compassionate involves taking responsibility for yourself and being aware of the impact your actions have on others.
These same practices apply if you are not spending time with family at the holidays. If you feel lonely, let that feeling register. Bring curiosity to your experience. You might say, "I feel so alone right now. I wonder what this is about? I wonder if there's something valuable in this experience for me to understand?" Remind yourself that just because you feel lonely, doesn't mean that there is something wrong with you, or that you did something wrong. Sometimes we just feel lonely; it's part of being human. It's also an opportunity to recognize where you have agency: there are choices you can make to take responsibility for your situation. For example, if you want to feel more connected to others over the holidays, reach out to friends. Or you could explore opportunities to volunteer at a soup kitchen, food bank, toy drive or coat drive. You could also start your own traditions that express how you want to experience the season.
Remember that there is room to experiment with how you respond to your situation, no matter what it is.