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How to Be a Better Person Than You Were Last Year

Every holiday I drive up the Merritt Parkway feeling hopeful and upbeat. Who doesn’t want to have a relaxed, enjoyable break from the workaday week and stuff themselves silly? Um, I love that. Images of me having a great, easy time dance in my brain. And yet I have ruined many a holiday, mainly for myself, simply by being a jackass. By being too impatient, too reactive, too…everything. Why? Because: I’m stressed, she said this, she thinks that, and so on. Stupid bullshit.

So every year I think to myself, “Can I be a better person this year? And most importantly, how?” Because my moods and triggers are well-worn grooves at this point, and the trip wires of my personality, my fears and insecurities, are largely set. As are yours. But that doesn’t mean you can’t decide to act differently, to pump the brakes and coast through, with the goal to leave yourself and others unscathed.

Every family has its pressure points and aching joints, and it takes only one errant twist or yank to cause a spike of pain or resentment. That’s because the family is a body, and when you assemble yourself, around a table, specifically, you’re no longer this woman with a high powered job or that man with all his shit together. You’re…family. You fall into your old roles.

You may be the boss in your other life, but here, you’re the leg with the trick-knee that gets bent out of shape when talk of politics comes up. You could be the sexy, single catch in your world, but assume your place at the table, and you are the aching shoulder, bearing up under the tension between your mother and your sister. Or maybe you’re the ears of the body, channeling everyone’s complaints and problems and you leave with your whole head ringing.

I happen to have lucked out in that I get zero flak from my family for the life I have chosen, which looks striking different from theirs. And not just by several thousand square feet, but also because I’m the only one in the family who has never been married and has no children. I get to be the fancy aunt, breezing in from Manhattan on a wing, and that back a few days later. Not bad. And I have many friends who don’t get this kind of support.

But even I feel the old strain in the psychological musculature. And you know what? I’m doing my best to ignore it, let it pass, slide, evaporate. And while you don’t need me to tell you that trying to multitask is a bad idea, I’ve found my patience with my own family goes up tenfold when I’m not also “trying” to do something else. Like: respond to an email, write something, do some other kind of work. The less productive I try to be while with them, the less jumpy and agitated I get.

Do I have some magic advice for you this holiday season? Just that. That you’ll feel old aches, and sometimes a fresh, searing pain. And while it’s easy to wish she were this way or he were that way, you know what? If you had a different family, you might not have these particular aches, but you’d have others.

Every year, rather than coddle those pains, I try to do the opposite: Stretch my patience, tone up my good will, keep blood flowing through the most generous parts of me. The holiday season is a long, exhausting haul. You’ve got to make sure you’re in shape.

Worst case, take a hot bath. It works, every time.

How to Know You’re a Christmas Masochist

santa claus, christmasYou’re not a masochist, and yet, this time of year, you could possibly pass for one. Look at your calendar! Your to-do list! You take on more than you could possibly do, and aspire to even more. You raise your standards, your expectations, and your stress levels—all in the name of good cheer and a happy holiday.

What? Does it have to be like this? Nope. You can change your experience of the holidays—but you have to aware of what you’re doing first. Let’s start with five things you’re doing to yourself that are making things way harder than they have to be.

#1. You think you should make it all from scratch. Yourself. I get it—the homemade candy and cookies, the little handsewn soap pockets (not kidding, someone thinks this is a good idea). Then there’s the handmade hand-stamped wrapping paper with arty kitchen twine, the personalized holiday cards, and on it goes.If you’re a crafty person and love that this is the one time of year you get a good excuse to knit, of course, go for it. But if not, my advice: Pick one thing you’re going to make, and make it for everyone. Something easy, heartfelt, but not something that’s going to leave you sobbing at midnight on Dec 23rd.  Make one thing your thing this year, start early, be consistent, and keep it simple.

#2. You’re expecting people, personalities, and relationships to change, simply because it’s Christmas. Look, I have fallen prey to this myself. And yes, I like to think we can all rise to the occasion and above old petty arguments when the season is upon us. Unless you’re hoping Santa delivers an entirely new family to your door, you’ll find the same cast of characters there: your sister-in-law will ask the nosy questions she always does, your father will let your mother do all the dishes, and your Aunt Edna will ride your last nerve. You know this. Plan for it. The way to keep the peace is to let some things slide.

#3. You’re practicing mind reading on a daily basis (newsflash: you’re not a mindreader). You believe that you know what someone else is thinking right now, and often you expect the very worst. You assume your mother is judging your decision around where to spend the holiday; you are 100 percent sure your husband is thinking you’re spending too much money on gifts. When you believe them, you react to them—in the real world—and create tension where none need be. Make yourself a promise that before you jump to conclusions, about anything, you’ll ask the questions. Invite the conversation. Be honest about your concerns, rather than assume everyone is against you.

#4. You’re translating love into money. I’ve done it—overspent on people because I know I’ve been hard on them, or a straight-up bitch, and I’m sorry about it. When you replace your holiday budget with an emotionally triggered system, whereby you use money to fix problems in a relationship. Doesn’t work. So when you realize you’re stretching yourself thin in an effort to prove, signify, or reinforce an emotional bond, rethink it. Ask yourself if there are things you can do to improve or heal those relationships that have taken a beating this year—ones that don’t require a Visa.

#5. You’re treating your holiday as a marathon. How many times have you thought, I just need to get through this. As if the holidays are one long stretch designed to drain you of energy and joy. In fact, the holidays are meant to buoy and uplift—but they can’t if you see them as something to endure. Yes, it’s an incredibly busy time, and can be physically, emotionally, and spiritually draining. But if you view the time from now through the new year as a series of brief sprints with a whole lot of walking in between, you might actually enjoy it.

This post was written for meQuilibrium, the first-ever customized online stress management program.


 

3 Things to Stop Yourself From Doing This Holiday

mad-lib

Stop playing mental Mad-Libs.

 

You’ve already done a lot of things up to this point: Bought gifts, planned trips, cooked or baked a bunch of stuff. Now you’re packing your bag and girding your loins in preparation of some of the issues/topics/discussions that will likely come up over the course of the next week around the people you’ll be in close quarters with once again.

And so I’m not telling you to DO anything more right now. You’ve done enough. Now’s the time to STOP doing some things. Things that you do because you’re on autopilot from years of training by the very people whom you love dearly, but who have and will drive you crazy.

Take it from someone who’s ruined many a holiday. Oh please. Many. I get worked up, rattled, defensive, and then like an old motherboard I short out completely and shut down. My mood hits Blue Screen of Death and there’s no coming back from it. Not even for dessert.

If you can stop doing these three things, even for just this short period of time, you’ll be better off. I’m telling you so that I can remind myself to do it, too.

STOP PLAYING MENTAL MAD LIBS

When it comes to your relatives, so many ingrained patterns can take over that having conversations turns into a horrible game of Mad Libs where you start filling in the blanks of with outrageous thoughts and ideas.

Meaning: If your older sister asks you how work is, she actually may just want to know how work is. You, however, may find yourself working off the old script that says that her character resents you for your job / thinks you’re unambitious, etc. When you start filling in the blanks with YOUR idea about what she really thinks of you and your work, boy are you in trouble now. You’re down the rabbit hole. Which leads to the next thing to stop doing.

STOP REACTING

If and when my family reads this, they will each do a spit take with their pinot grigio at me doling out this advice. (“Now THAT is rich!”). Because you’re talking to the Queen of Reaction. Whether it’s your sister asking about work or your mother asking about your love life, it may hit some buttons but you have control over how you respond.

Case in point, one of my sisters has a way of laser-focusing her support on me in such a white-hot glare of loving attention that I sometimes can’t take it. I really can’t. I feel like it’s burning a hole through my head. I know she’s doing it with nothing but loving intentions, but for some reason, it always comes across as a kind of interrogation by the time it hits my amygdala.

And it’s not because of what she does (though she is very intense), but how I react to it that makes it worse (anger, defensiveness, aggression, tears). We can all control this; we often don’t.

Let’s pinkie swear this year that we’re going to try. Assume instead that all of it–the comments, the questions–are coming from a place of compassion and care (even if deep down you’d bet dollars to donuts it’s not)–doesn’t matter. ACT as though it is coming from love, and you’ll respond in a much better way.

STOP DEFENDING

Sometimes even the prospect of standing your ground can pitch you into a state of weariness and despair (and long naps). Christmas can often become a kind of Year in Review. How far has everyone come? Where have people f’d up? Let’s regale everyone with those tales again. The course correcting, the interventions, the would-be come to Jesus moments–all can fail horribly and go upsettingly awry.

And it can be really hard to hold onto what sanity you had when you arrived–when you were this other, whole, happy person who has a life and an apartment, a job, maybe a relationship. Just being in the vicinity of people who knew you before your teeth were straight or you had a bank account, can make you feel like you’re Benjamin Button-ing into that bitchy, deplorable teenager you once were. EVERYONE goes through that. Doesn’t matter if you’re approaching menopause or your hair is thinning.

The defensiveness that you and I feel comes from an effort to hang onto that calmer, cooler, respectable adult that everyone else knows you to be…and that you feel you must prove that you are. You never outgrow your family–and so it can feel like you need to fight off the “old” you, no matter who that was. To do battle against the old jokes, expectations. But you don’t. And to think you can change your relatives’ minds?  You’re lucky if you can get them to try one new dish that wasn’t on the table last year.

TRY IT….

Choose a new script. Find a new motivation. Pull the plug on your hard-wired panic buttons and allow yourself to breathe a second before you say a goddamned thing.

Recognize that there is love in the midst of all the ancient game-playing. What’s more, while no one can tease you about the kinds of things these people can, no one loves you like them, either.

In Defense of Gifts: I’m Getting You One and You’ll Like It

Holidays are for giving. Gift giving. And I mean actual gifts.  Not, “I donate money to charity and send you a card that pretends you gave it,” and not, “Let’s just split the check on this dinner bill and that’s our gift!” No. I’m talking the kind you shop for, buy, and wrap. And I for one cannot stand and will not abide anyone who tries to remove gifts from the Christmas equation. You’d think it was unevolved or a straight-up sin to buy great shit and give it to people.

CHRISTMAS-PRESENTS-ARE-ALWAYS-WORTHYYou couldn’t be more wrong.

Yes, we live in a culture obsessed with stuff, 99% of which none of us needs. In fact, I’m willing to bet that not one of us would notice it really if we didn’t buy a nonperishable item in the next 12 months. Unless you died of boredom. Which I might. And yes, that very culture defines us not even as people, but as consumers. This makes some people just curl up in despair. Not me. I embrace my consumer self. Because when this time of year rolls around, my big consumer heart pulses and heaves with joy.

Look, I’m not fan of the Black Friday ritual of full-blown shopper mayhem either, and am not willing to risk life and limb to press through the doors of Best Buy for a flat screen TV. But Black Friday is and has always been about the savings, not the giving. There’s where it goes off the rails. Because an attempt to buy more stuff for less ultimately does little but, well, make you buy more. So you’ve got to separate out the crazy people-tramplers from the importance of gifts themselves.

What I’m saying is, don’t throw the baby (Jesus) out of with the Black Friday bathwater.

Because unless you’re going all Kirk Cameron this year (who attempted to save Christmas and ended up in the shitter), you know this to be true. And need I remind you that Jesus HIMSELF GOT GIFTS on his birthday. Shitty gifts, I grant you. But they’re a big part of the story.

My boyfriend tried to pull this no-gifts maneuver this year. To his credit, he is a great lover of experiential gifts, and he’s good at it. Last year he bought us an evening cooking class—and it was great and thoughtful and sweet! But when he floated the idea of us just doing something together this year and calling it our Christmas gift, I said, let’s do something together, because we do things together—AND you’re also getting a gift from me whether you like it or not. I simply will not be robbed of this annual joy. Especially since I’m so goddamned good at it.

There was a study published a while back that said that experiential gifts are better, as they appreciate over time, as opposed to “that iPod” which will be out of date in a few years. I think cruises or show tickets or super fancy restaurant dinner as gift are great. But don’t you dare poo-poo the iPod. The year my family and I all got our first generation iPods was one of our historical best. Even if I don’t even know where that thing is anymore.

Granted, I come from a tradition of heavy duty gift exchanges (my childhood was awash in electronic toys, digital alarm clocks, stereos), and my parents admittedly have a habit of going overboard. But it was fun for them, and they were in a position to do it, so there you have it.

But even we tried doing a no-gifts thing. One year, not that long ago, we did a complete Christmas detox and exchanged nada. Except for my mom, who says she gets to do what she wants because she’s the mother. But between the rest of us? We all had bills to pay, and yada yada yada.  “We’ll bake cookies! We’ll play games! We’ll have a beer tasting!” Yeah we did that. And you know what? It sucked. It was one of the most boring, least gleeful Christmases ever. It’s like trying to remove cake from a birthday party and instead blowing out candles and pretending it was just as fun. It’s not.

We have since arighted the ship and are back to our giving ways, even if we do keep within a budget so no one goes crazy. You don’t have to go into debt. But Christmas is always coming. So you budget for it.
And lest you think I’m some kind of heathen, I say this: Giving really is more fun. But you need to give something to do it. During my very first year of gainful employment, I pulled up to my parents’ home at the holidays with a Subaru packed to the gills with gifts I paid for with my own money. I was particularly proud of a pair of super cool Old Navy overalls for my sister Kim (it was a phase). Most importantly, it was the year I felt I had arrived as an adult. I could finally bring something to the table, or tree, as it were. That mattered. Still does.

Oh, and the Christmas-is-for-kids thing? Please. I think it’s a very bad idea to forego gift exchanges between adults so that you can drown the kids in so much stuff they can barely open it all before lunch. Because what you’re modeling is, “Christmas is recreation and gifts is all about what you get and what parents provide.” Not true. Stop giving to the people you love on Christmas, and you’re saying, “Meh, we had our fun. Let’s just skip our gifts and throw another Barbie on the funeral pyre.” It also in some small way says, “I’m not worth a gift, and neither are you.” And that is the most anti-holiday sentiment of all.