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Tiptoe Through the Holidays
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WELL-BEING

Tiptoe Through the Holidays

A few practical ways to handle holiday stress … without the mess.

By Shawn Healy

The holiday season brings with it a mix of emotions and expectations. Memories from holidays of old mingle with hopes — and fears — for the upcoming holiday. For some, the holidays are a much-anticipated time to see family and friends or to partake in a much-loved tradition. For others, it is a time to survive or “just get through.” For me, it has always been a mixed bag. There are traditions or conversations I look forward to and other situations I wish could exist only in archive form.

If the holiday season has been a source of stress for you in the past, here are some practical ways to reduce that stress.

Deal With Your Control Issues

The most effective way to reduce stress is to identify what you actually control in a situation. The best way to rapidly increase your stress is to attempt to control something that is clearly not within your control. For example, have you ever thought, “I just wish everyone would [ _____ ]!” (Fill in the blank with whatever is meaningful: “get along,” “be grateful,” “stop bringing up politics,” “help out around the house” … you get the point.) If so, then you’re focusing on things outside of your control (namely other people).

Instead, focus your energy on things within your control. Recognize what you do not have control over (most things) — and stop trying to control those things.

Examine Your Expectations

We all have expectations — that is, things that we expect to happen. Some are realistic and healthy, while others are unrealistic and not at all helpful.

Expectations are different than hopes and dreams. I might hope a family gathering goes well, but I might not form an expectation that it will go well. One way to distinguish expectation from hope is to ask yourself whether or not you would be pleasantly surprised if that thing came true. When a positive expectation is met, we don’t feel pleasantly surprised. We feel as though things are the way they were meant to be. On the other hand, when a hope is realized, we often feel pleasantly surprised.

So, try to reduce the number of expectations, make your expectations moderate and realistic, and increase the number of your hopes for the holiday season.

Have Clear Goals for Conversations

A common source of tension during the holidays are those challenging conversations with people who hold opposing views on issues that are very important to us. Politics, religion, finances, life decisions and so on. It is helpful to know your goals and prepare ahead of time for those conversations.

Is your goal to have an engaging debate about a hot topic?

Then engage with someone who enjoys a spirited debate, but establish your intentions ahead of time. (“I love debating this topic, I find it fascinating to hear different perspectives.”) Do your homework, and don’t make it personal. End the debate by appreciating at least one point that the other person made and express your enjoyment of the debate.

Is your goal to avoid recurring arguments?

Then be aware of how such arguments typically start. Choose to avoid engaging in potentially hot issues when you are tired, when you have been drinking alcohol, or when you are feeling irritated or upset for any reason. If the other person tries to goad you into a recurring argument, use humor to diffuse the tension or simply change the topic. In short, do not take the bait. Make it clear that you have no interest in debating, and invite others to engage with you in some other way. (Perhaps a spontaneous singalong?)

Is your goal to strengthen your relationship with a loved one with whom you disagree?

Perhaps you have noticed that your relationship with a loved one has been harmed (either slowly over time or dramatically with one hot-topic argument). Then consider whether the potential reward of winning a debate is worth any further potential damage it might do to your relationship. Loved ones often show that they care by wanting to convince you of something that is important to them. We all do this — it’s human nature. But sometimes that well-intentioned act causes significant harm. You don’t have control over your loved one’s desire to convince you of their perspective. You can, however, exercise control in directing the conversation to a topic of interest where the other person can fulfill that same desire. For example, you might ask about a benign topic of interest to the other person and follow up with sincere questions to learn more about their experiences or perspective.

If the other person feels you are engaged and interested in what they have to say, this often leads to a less contentious conversation and can result in feeling like your relationship has been preserved or improved.

Is your goal to use Jedi mind tricks?

If you’re in a playful mood, and the other person has a sense of humor (and can recognize and appreciate sarcasm), you can try turning the tables a bit. If the other person starts arguing a contentious position with which they know you do not agree, try simply responding from the outset with, “You have convinced me. You’re completely right. I agree with you 100%.” Often this will be slightly disorienting to the person and they will not believe your quick and total agreement. Continue to respond in the exact same way with every point they make. This usually results in the person getting frustrated and feeling powerless to persuade you. Again, only do this with someone you feel you have enough rapport with and who might appreciate your sense of humor.

Know When (and When Not) to Use Your Lawyer Skills

As a lawyer, you have been equipped with skills of persuasion (identifying a position, compiling evidence in your favor and crafting a convincing argument). This undoubtedly serves you well in your professional pursuits. However, these skills might be a liability to you in personal interactions. So, once you have identified your goals for each interaction (e.g., having a debate versus improving your relationship), decide whether your lawyer skills will improve or diminish your chances of achieving that goal.

Related: “Five Ways to Leave Your Lawyer at Work” by Jamie Spannhake

Increase Your Tolerance for Pain (It Will End)

Research shows that you can increase your pain tolerance if you know when the discomfort you are experiencing will end. This is one reason why taking regular, predictable breaks during your workday can increase your focus and productivity. This technique can be helpful during the holidays. Plan to take periodic breaks from situations or conversations that you find stressful. For example, a bathroom break is never questioned. Or you could simply yell into the other room, “Yes, Aunt Mildred. I’ll be right there.” (Of course, this is only humorous if you do not have an Aunt Mildred).

So, whether you simply remind yourself that the holiday season is finite, or you plan regular breaks throughout your day and during stressful encounters, seeing your discomfort as temporary can make it more tolerable.

For this holiday season, may you have realistic expectations, achievable goals within your control, and unexpected fun along the way.

You Might Also Like:

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Shawn Healy Shawn Healy

Shawn Healy is a licensed clinical psychologist with Massachusetts Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Inc. (LCL). He runs stress management groups for law firms and provides training sessions on time and stress management to bar associations, solo attorneys and law firms. A frequent writer on the topics of conflict resolution, anxiety management, resilience and work-life balance, he is a contributor to the LCL blog and tweets for @LCL_MassLawyers.

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