It's THAT Time of Year

It’s that time of year again, folks. The holidays are here. For many, this is a cause for celebration- a time to gather with the ones we love, eat yummy food, play, laugh and relax. For others, well… not so much. For many of us, family is a source of conflicted emotions and tensions that took root a long time ago, and the stresses of our world today have brought some heavy things to the surface.

It’s been interesting to have the perspective of a therapist during this time. With mental health care becoming more accessible than ever, I find myself getting connected with people who have decided to enter therapy for the first time. As I begin work together with my clients, I often notice that something tricky happens; as people develop awareness of their own mental and emotional hang-ups, they start seeing unhelpful patterns in people around them, along with issues in their relationships with others.

Sometimes this newfound information about themselves and others feels positive, exciting and empowering. Clients find themselves wanting to share what they have learned, and sometimes they end up doing so with those around them. What they tend to find is at least three different types of reactions. They might recognize others who also do inner-work, which usually creates a bonding experience, as there is often mutual sharing and passion for the work, growth, and benefits of self-examination. The second two reactions include those who think it’s great for other people to do inner-work (but have little interest in doing it for themselves), and those who have no interest in it whatsoever. This conflict of values tends to cause tension.

Sidebar: I’d like to share my definition of “inner work" so we're on the same page. "Inner work" involves consistently and intentionally practicing skills around being aware of our selves and our personal perspective. This might involve things like:

- questioning ourselves objectively, and seeking to learn about how our opinions formed

- learning to identify and analyze our needs, thoughts, and emotions (how they interact with each other and our behaviors or decisions)

- actively working on being better communicators

- practicing becoming more assertive

- naming our values and seeking to help our behaviors line up with them

- understanding our self-talk, and seeking to add more compassion to it

Inner work doesn’t always mean therapy, though that’s often part of it. Learning and practicing these skills can be incredibly liberating, but it can also be a very challenging process. Everyone can benefit from it, but not everyone is up for it.

The tension created by those who do inner work and those who don’t often feels uncomfortably disruptive. It can shake the person, and the foundation of that relationship, to the core. It makes the person question themselves, doubt who they are and what they want, and wonder about things they once assumed to be normal, healthy, or enough for them. That unmooring experience can be frightening and frustrating. Many people turn back to old patterns and habits simply because the unknown of forging ahead into deeper self-knowledge is more daunting than staying miserable in familiar ways.

But that’s not the only option. During the holidays, many of us find ourselves on the precipice of spending time with the kinds of people that challenge us. You might be strategizing about how to spend time with them. You might be carrying a lot of anxiety about interacting with a certain relative or relatives. You might be planning to avoid them all together. You might be rehearsing conversations in your head, or talking them out with trusted friends. No matter what, here’s a handful of tips for how to approach these interactions with people who don’t intentionally do “inner work”.

  1. Let go of your expectations of them. Not accepting and being present in what is, and focusing on what we wish to be true, creates stress and suffering for ourselves. If we try to make others into something they don’t want to be, we will only meet resistance from them. So get curious, and ask what’s keeping you from loving them as they are, where they're at.

  2. See them as a mirror for reflection on yourself. Every interaction teaches us about ourselves- what we can do well, where we are growing, even seeing skills that we didn’t realize we were lacking in. We can ask permission of ourselves to improve if we need to, and celebrate if we have done well.

  3. Lead by example. We have to remember that we aren’t perfect either, and if we’re too busy projecting our opinions, needs, and issues onto others, we might be missing out. Do the best you can with the tools you have, and maybe the people you are in conflict with will start to get curious about your process.

  4. Maintain your grounding. When we’re about to enter a potentially triggering situation, we can prepare ourselves ahead of time. Take steps beforehand to center yourself with self-talk and soul-care. Plan for conflict, and make some ground rules for how you want to protect and honor yourself. This not only helps you, but serves the people who are around you.

  5. See their inner child. We are all somebody’s baby, and all any of us is doing at any given moment is trying to get our needs met. Our needs are valid, but the ways we try to meet them are not always helpful. We all have our unique journey of struggles, traumas and wounds, and we’re all responding to this messy world in the best way we know how.

  6. Look for the Divine in them. No matter what we think of anyone, they all have a piece of something sacred and holy in them. All people contain goodness and truth, no matter how obfuscated or distorted that may be. When we honor a person’s soul, we honor ourselves.

In summary, know your values and let your choices honor them. This might mean setting physical and/or emotional boundaries, or developing and using assertive communication skills. It can even mean avoiding conflict and tension all together, if we’re not able to employ the skills above. You deserve to live the life that matches what’s important to you, and who you choose to include on your journey is up to you.


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