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.