I’m reaching out to all of you who have troubled family relationships during the holidays.
Maybe family members act more like frozen icicles than warm comforting blankets. Perhaps cutting words feel like daggers that pierce your soul. Maybe your mother still treats you like a 12-year-old. That hurts all the time, but especially during the holidays.
Attachment theory tells us that human beings need emotional responsiveness from loved ones to feel safe. We need to feel safe before we can open our hearts. We need to feel safe before we feel like being playful.
We need family members to show us that they care about our feelings. We need to feel safe before we can share what’s really going on inside. Guess what? So do they.
Many of us feel like we need to guard our hearts because our loved ones haven’t learned how to have caring conversations. It’s only natural to want to protect ourselves. Our family members probably feel that way, too.
What can you do to help yourself feel safe and stay more centered during the holidays?
See if you are willing to try any of these nine things.
When your family members do things that trigger you, use the tools below to calm your over-aroused nervous system. Return yourself to the zone of resilience. We call this self-regulation.
1. Focus your intentions. Your number one agenda is to stay centered. If you’re not centered, it’s unlikely that you’ll express yourself in a way that will draw others toward you.
2. Monitor your stress levels. Don’t let the stress get too big. Ask yourself: What do I feel in my body? Notice when you are beginning to get overwhelmed. Maybe your chest is tight. Maybe you get a lump in your throat. Maybe you get teary. Maybe you clench your jaws. Maybe your muscles tighten up. Maybe your gut churns. Maybe you get a headache. Maybe your voice gets tense and stern. Maybe you want to distance yourself. All these are common indications that your nervous system is feeling threatened because you don’t feel safe with your tribe. That’s normal and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. What do you feel in your emotions? Hurt, sad, shame or fear? Does your anger cover up any of these other feelings? Be compassionate with yourself. Remember, you are only human.
3. Breathe deeply. Remember a time when you felt peaceful. Maybe you remember walking along the beach hearing the sound of ocean waves and watching the foam recede from the shore. I remember the time when I was meditating under a giant old oak tree on my university campus while my boyfriend held me in his arms. Polyvagal theory tells us that when we exhale longer than we inhale, we calm down. Try this breathing method: inhale to the count of four. Hold to the count of four. Exhale to the count of eight. You can do this any time, anywhere.
4. Take a time-out to self-soothe. What if you can’t calm down in the midst of a family gathering? Go to the bathroom or take a walk outside to do your deep breathing. Get some physical exercise. Listen to soothing music. Meditate.
5. Ground yourself in your environment. Look around you. Name five things you see. Name five things you hear. Name five things you touch. Name three things you smell. Taste something and pay attention to your taste buds. This grounds you in your body and reduces anxiety. Again, you can do this any time, anywhere.
6. Set a time limit. In a high-conflict situation, you can tell your family ahead of time how long you plan to stay. Maybe it’s only an hour or two at a time. Take care of yourself while you show them that you care about them.
7. Express your love and appreciation. When we have intensely uncomfortable feelings, it may be difficult to think of anything positive. That’s because our brain is in a defensive mode trying to protect us from what it perceives as a threat. Not being securely attached with loved ones feels like a threat to us because we are bonding mammals. When you realize that your brain feels threatened, you can be more objective and compassionate with yourself and others. You can ask yourself, “Am I really in danger?” If not, you can do your self-soothing skills and calm down. Then focus on what you appreciate. When you express it in a genuine way with warmth in your eyes, you’ll be doing your part to co-create healthier interactions. Others may feel less threatened if you take this first step.
8. Ask for spiritual guidance. Your spiritual connection is your ultimate way to feel safe and secure even when your family members can’t return love to you. Spend time communing with God. Ask for your heart to be filled with God’s love. Breathe it in and soak in it. As you make the secure attachment with God your primary focus, you’ll be better prepared to share the divine love with your family. You can let it flow through you to them. Remember, you don’t have to handle this situation alone. You have a heavenly partner all the time. Ask and receive. Let in the comforting unconditional love of God.
9. See if you are willing to have a heart-to-heart conversation instead of staying on the surface. Maybe you are ready for this. Maybe you’re not. This is an advanced skill and I’ll be happy to coach you on this if you would like. (Send me an email from my Contact Page
and I’ll schedule a complimentary 10-minute call with you.)
Maybe you’ll hear God whisper in your ear, “This is the time. Now. Go talk to your father.” Maybe you decide to take the risk to reach out and say, “Would you be willing to have a private chat with me? I’d like to repair our relationship because it … and you … are so important to me. Is this a good time, or can we arrange another time?” If your voice expresses warmth and your eyes show sincerity, you may be surprised to hear, “Sure, let me finish cleaning up and I’ll join you in five minutes.”
Remember: We are either expressing love or making a call for love. Try to see yourself and your family the way God sees you.
I wish you a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Joyful Kwanzaa. May you and your family be blessed with the renewal of love this season.
Author: Benita A. Esposito, MA, Licensed Professional Counselor
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If you would like help to increase your ability to stay centered and repair family relationships, please email me via the Contact Page. I’ll respond to you within 24 hours Monday-Thursday except holidays.