For many, the holiday season is the most difficult time of the year. In fact, because so many people have a hard time during the holidays, therapists will often find themselves working overtime. What is it that can be so hard about holidays? The family get-togethers. These are where the same old fights are rehashed, and the same feuds rear their ugly heads.
What is the best way to navigate these challenges? What approach should I take at yet another Chanukah party where Aunt Sylvia constantly criticizes me for not choosing a particular career path? Is it even possible not to blow up in her face?
How do we survive – or even enjoy – the holiday season?
The Cycle is To Blame
The foremost thing to remember is that the enemy is the cycle, not the people. Meaning, we tend to find ourselves in the same endless arguments with the same family members. Feelings get hurt, and then we do the same thing at the next get-together. We identify the person with whom we get into the most arguments and then assume that they are the problem. That way, we conveniently have someone to blame, and it’s not ourselves.
A healthier approach might be to think of the cycle itself as the problem, and we the guilty participants. The problem is not that Aunt Sylvia is bad, and it’s not that I am impossible. The problem is that our interactions together need fixing. We stumble into the same pattern over and over, and it is the interactions between the two of us that need to change.
Emotionally Focused Therapy
There are a lot of different ways to change, but I think a good starting point is considering primary emotions and secondary emotions. One of the tenets of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is that there is a vast array of emotions, and the more we understand them, the more control we gain over them. Learning to understand our emotions can help us learn how to use them and focus them properly.
EFT theorizes that some emotions are what we are really feeling, and other emotions may appear on the surface but aren’t really at the heart of the issue. If I trip and someone laughs at me, for example, I may express anger towards them even though my true feeling is embarrassment.
It’s Time for Change
One of the first steps to gaining control over our emotions is to identify and name what we are really feeling. Once we do that, we can express what we are feeling to others, and the conversation can then shift. Rather than yelling at everyone to get out of the kitchen, or lashing out at Aunt Sylvia for her constant criticism, I can react differently. I can explain that I feel rejected when Aunt Sylvia only focuses on my brother’s accomplishments and ignores mine. I can express hurt, or say that it feels like someone has no confidence in me, or that I feel marginalized.
As a disclaimer, I would add that this approach works only when both parties are interested in change. If I am not interested in improving the situation, then you can be as in touch with your emotions as you want, but I may not reciprocate the same kind of sensitivity or awareness.
Finally, if I recognize how I am really feeling instead of leaving it as simply “angry” or “frustrated”, I gain more power over how I choose to react in a given situation. Recognizing that what I am really feeling is rejected will likely keep me from displaying anger and pushing others away. Ultimately, this EFT-based approach can lend me power in taking charge of my life and my choices.
Being The Light
This Chanukah, like others before it, will have its parties and family get-togethers. Some of them we wish we could go to, and others we would find any excuse to avoid. Wherever we find ourselves, let’s do our best to be a light to others. By recognizing and expressing our primary emotions, we can set the tone for communicating in a helpful, intentional manner.
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