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Rational Approach to the Holidays

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
winter wreath

Holidays are often a joyous reunion for many families--a time of happy memories, a time of sharing, a time of renewing ties. Many people look forward to the holiday season with excited anticipation. However, many people look forward to the holiday season with trepidation. Often, holidays are stressful times because problems within families that can be ignored from a distance become readily apparent with the close contact of family gatherings. What is supposed to be a pleasant time becomes a nightmare.

Often, the problem with holidays is due to expectations. The family may have an unwritten set of rules or expectations all family members have to follow or receive disapproval if they don't:

"Everyone must attend every holiday dinner."

"No one must disagree with Aunt Jane."

"Arguments are unacceptable."

"The women cook and clean up while the men watch football."

"Everyone must attend church."

The individual then feels he or she must follow these rules because of fear of the consequences. Such consequences include disapproving looks, angry outbursts, the silent treatment, guilt induction, or a myriad of other ways families use to maintain control over their members. These methods of control have been well developed in the family and maintained over many years which seriously hinders an individual from resisting the family norm. Sometimes, individuals who challenge the family rules are labeled as disruptive or "the black sheep."

Yet, what one must realize is that it requires two sides to play these games: those who control and those who allow themselves to be controlled. A position of refusing to be manipulated is based on a change in thinking towards the family norms. Instead of thinking, "I cannot upset the family and therefore have to put up with everything no matter how unpleasant," the individual thinks, "I can take care of my own needs even if it causes conflict."

For instance, a common problem during the holidays is the expectation of spending the holidays with the extended family. These demands are especially problematic for young families who often attend several dinners in one day just to please all their families. To determine your family's expectations, try to imagine your extended family's reaction if you were to announce, "I'm going to the Bahamas for the holidays." If you imagine your family will be upset or even angry about your decision, how are you likely to react? Do you tell yourself, "I don't really want to cause any problems, so I won't go to the Bahamas?" If you do, consider whether this is a typical pattern for you. What if you received an all expenses paid vacation to the Bahamas? What if your spouse's family was spending the holidays in the Bahamas? The answers to these questions may grant you some insight into your typical patterns related to your family.

The above scenario is based on an irrational belief that is called a "should." "Shoulds" are almost always irrational because they are implicit rules of behaving based upon others' expectations and not upon personal choice. Many people argue that we are required to follow such rules because otherwise we are bad people. For instance, "You should not steal." However, in reality, we do not steal because we don't want to steal for a variety of reasons: we don't want to suffer the consequences, we don't want to treat others unfairly, etc.

When people listen to shoulds, they allow others to dictate their beliefs and behaviors. This causes a great deal of pressure for the individual due to internal conflict. When a person doesn't want to do something but does it anyway, he or she will often feel stress or anxiety. Eventually, trying to refrain from conflict in the family will lead to problems for the individual of possibly even greater conflict within the family.

Steps to Reduce Holiday Stress

1) Consider your needs and desires. Become aware of your needs. Ask yourself what it is that you want. Do this without censoring your thoughts--allow yourself to consider freely your needs. "If I could do anything I want without any consequences, what would it be?"

2) Determine the real consequences, not the imagined ones. Consider that if you did what you want, what the consequences, in reality, would be. Don't catastrophize. Will your mother truly never speak to you again or will she just be disappointed? If she truly will never speak to you again, perhaps it's not a healthy relationship and the holidays are the least of your problems.

3) Rationally assess the consequences. Once you have established the realistic consequences, determine if you can live with them. If the consequence is disappointing your mother and you feel you can't live with it, ask yourself if you are taking too much responsibility for her feelings. She's choosing to feel disappointment because of her own belief system. You are not responsible for that.

4) Examine how to address the problem. If you can live with the consequences, determine whether you know how to implement the behavior. For instance, sometimes a person may be willing to refuse an expectation but not know how to do so without engaging in a battle. That individual may need to learn some assertiveness skills. Assertive communication is voicing your own needs or opinion respectfully without violating the needs of others. Assertion is direct and to the point about your needs.

5) Put your plan into action. Finally, choose to act. You can choose to live with the frustration related to dealing with your family's expectations and suffer the consequences, or you can choose to change your interactions with them. The important thing, however, is to recognize that you do have a choice. Even that recognition can reduce the amount of stress you experience from the situation.

The above steps reflect changing the way you react to a situation both cognitively and behaviorally. Cognitive changes involve challenging the irrational thinking that contributes to the experience of stress. Changing the shoulds, catastrophic thinking, and over-responsibility for the feelings of others will make it easier to respond to family situations.

Changing the behavior involves learning skills such as being assertive with your family. Other skills to help you cope are relaxation methods and stress-reducing exercising. By combining these cognitive and behavioral methods into a plan for facing the holidays you can significantly reduce your level of stress during the holidays.


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Dr. Monica Frank

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