One of the conversations that I frequently have with coaching clients around the holidays is this one: my clients share that most of the year, they feel like they’re making progress in shifting their lives in the ways that they want to. Then the holidays happen, and as soon as they’re around their families again, particularly that one person who is their biggest trigger, they’re suddenly feeling like their “old” selves.
“I don’t get it,” some will say. “I’ll do all of this personal work and arrive at this place where I know that I don’t have to buy into any old stories. But it’s like so-and-so knows just how to get me, knows exactly what to say and how to say it, and after white-knuckling my way through the third thing that bugs me, I can’t take it anymore. I start to get a headache. I start to withdraw. I start to get a pot-shot in. I get passive aggressive and resentful.”
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. You know that resorting to the old patterns makes you miserable, and it doesn’t help the situation. You don’t want to buy into the insanity of the dysfunctional patterns any longer, and you know that you can’t change them – just yourself – so here are 5 mantras to keep you sane during times of… insanity.
Mantra #1: “Maybe I misunderstood.”
I’m throwing this out first, because it’s always possible that as perfectly imperfect human beings, we’re assuming that Aunt Sally is taking on a critical tone when she points out that you spend a lot of money on rent. Maybe she’s just stating a fact – to her the rent seems expensive – no biggie. She’s just trying to make conversation and that’s what she happened to land on. Maybe she’s not trying to take you down a peg.
It’s worth it to remember times when someone has accused you of being rude, and meanwhile you were thinking, “Huh? Where did that come from?” It’s just as possible for any of the rest of us to misinterpret. There’s a lot less mental drama in realizing that it’s possible to misunderstand, and letting it go.
Mantra #2: “It’s all just feedback.”
In other words, it’s all just someone else’s lens on life. Maybe people are directly critical or confrontational. Well, fine – but it’s all just feedback, feedback that you get to take in and then decide on what you want from there. Someone says that you spend too much money on things that don’t really matter? That’s just their lens on life, reflected through the feedback they give you.
Convinced that your uncle is getting in passive aggressive pot-shots whenever he can? He’s just trying to give you his feedback on your life sadly because in some twisted way he cares about you and thinks that you need to change your behavior, and that the way to get you to change is to be passive aggressive. You get to choose whether or not to listen, how personally to take it, and how to respond.
Try a little practice run: imagine the last time someone said something spicy to you and then mentally imagine yourself shrugging and thinking, “It’s all just feedback; it’s all just feedback; it’s all just… feedback.”
Mantra #3: “I don’t know the whole picture.”
Maybe your mother didn’t make much of a deal over the holiday dinner this year because she doesn’t want to tell you how stressed out she is about her most recent mammogram. Maybe someone isn’t returning your phone calls because they’re grappling with three different kinds of stress at once. Maybe your uncle is being worse than usual because, unbeknownst to you, he doesn’t know how he’s going to buy gifts for his kids this year.
No one has a right to use their personal circumstances as an excuse use or abuse you, but it’s helpful to at least understand that when we don’t have the whole picture, and we fill in the gaps ourselves with stories like “She doesn’t really care” or “He just can’t be bothered” or “She’s so selfish,” then we’re creating more drama for ourselves and more disconnection from others. We also start to take things personally. The mantra “I don’t know the whole picture” is a reminder that there’s no need to fill in the gaps with assumptions about what others should be doing, nor scathing indictments of their character.
Mantra #4: “People do what they do.”
This mantra is my favorite year round. That cashier just snapped at you? Well, people do what they do. Someone just cut you off on the highway when it’s icy out? You’re alive, and breathing, and okay – and – people do what they do. Your sister is up to her usual drama, pitting family members against one another? Yes, it sucks, but – people do what they do.
Just like you, everyone has what they believe are very legitimate reasons for the choices that they make. They’re going to do what they do, whether you like it or not. Reminding yourself that “people do what they do” is a mantra for detaching from trying to control them.
Obviously, if you’re standing in a mall and a frustrated dad starts hitting his kid, it might be good to step in – I’m not suggesting confusing this mantra with apathy or standing idly by while someone gets hurt. This mantra is most powerful when someone uses it to practice the philosophy that the more we try to control others, the more out of control we feel ourselves. When we keep a mental list of all the things that people “should” have done differently, we end up draining our own energy. When we accept that people “do what they do,” our energy gets freed up to look to what might be a possible solution.
Mantra #5: “I don’t have to.”
Sometimes, the dynamics that we have with our families have crossed so far beyond a line that it just isn’t healthy to keep putting ourselves in their firing line and pushing ourselves to create connection that just can’t be forged when someone else isn’t having it.
If a connection with someone has deteriorated to the point where they just will not let you leave a visit without yelling, where they won’t respond to your requests for respectful communication, where they put you down, or worse, then here’s the only mantra you need: “I don’t have to.”
You don’t have to go to the holiday dinner.
You don’t have to stay on the phone for one second longer once they lay into you.
You don’t even have to call them back.
You don’t have to write the chipper Christmas card.
You don’t have to force yourself to be in the same room.
Sometimes, distance is the sane choice.
People wonder, however, if that’s the “right” thing to do. Well, here’s a great litmus test for whether or not you’ve really arrived at a point where it’s time to back off from the relationship: Do you feel upset thinking to yourself, “Fine, I’m not going to talk to her; I don’t know why I bother!” or do you feel like you’d be relieved if you didn’t need to interact with this person, yet struggle with feeling guilty about it, like you might be “mean” if you backed away?
Truth time: if it’s the former, you’re angry enough that you’re probably very actively contributing to the conflict in that relationship. It’s time to step up your skills, and work actively on resolving conflict.
If it’s the latter, you’ve probably tried fifteen things to remedy the situation, none of which worked, and you’re just… tired. Tired of trying to be sane within an insane relationship dynamic. It might just be time for a break.
While none of us can control anyone else, we can decide to choose consciously, for ourselves. The holidays are a time when we have more contact with more relationships than at any time of the year, and this brings up old relationship dynamics and triggers. When things feel chaotic and stressful, we can forget that it’s actually okay to have a calm, easeful, and peaceful life. It’s more than okay to decide to choose it, consciously, one conversation at a time.
Which of these mantras do you imagine you’ll be using this holiday season? Let me know in the comments below!
Kate Swoboda, a.k.a. Kate Courageous, is a life coach, writer and speaker who teaches people how to practice courage in their lives and livelihood. Learn more about her and how you can practice courage in your own life and business on her website , or follow Kate on Twitter or Facebook.