Tuesday, December 17, 2013

'Tis the Season: Retrain Your Brain and Banish Family Holiday Stress for Good

Oh … the holidays!

Hot chocolate! Fancy cookies! Shopping for that perfect gift for that perfect someone while humming “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

 Sounds pretty good, right? 

Sadly, for some the holidays are more stress than joy. The prospect of spending prolonged periods with family when relationships are strained, hostile, or otherwise unsatisfying can be a major source of angst and even lead to depression or noticeable levels of anxiety.

Philip Rodriguez (not his real name), a professor at a prestigious university, says “I have friends who don’t visit their families anymore because they just can’t deal with it.”

Rodriguez hasn’t made that decision yet, but he’s thought about it. ‘There’s a lot of dysfunction in my family,” he says. “My sister is schizophrenic and bipolar. She’s moody, controlling, and angry. All my life she’s manipulated my parents. [Growing up] many of the holidays were centered around her and her moods.”

And that’s just the tip of the Rodriguez family iceberg. As a single person amongst those with “attachments” (“If you are single you are looked down on. I could write a book about how awful it is to be single in this society”) and a non-Christian surrounded by religious kin, Rodriguez finds the holidays trying, to say the least.

“Each time I see my father he tells me I should give my life to Jesus. He’s 87-years old, and I don’t want to fight him… but can’t we just have a nice dinner without [him trying] to convert me”? asks Rodriguez.

Whatever the cause, family gatherings can morph us into insecure, misunderstood adolescents in no time. Old resentments rise up while old wounds that have never fully healed reopen, and before too long, instead of enjoying a time of celebration with loved ones, we’re on edge and on the defense, looking forward to getting back to our home base and into the space that makes us feel like us again: adult, assured, and in control.

How to Break the Cycle?
How can we break this cycle, and sooner rather than later, so that our time with family is something to anticipate with gladness?

Life empowerment coach Adina Laver, MBA, MEd, CPC, who earned her coaching certificate at the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching and has been helping hurting individuals “break the chains of their childhood stories” for the past 15 years (most recently through her affiliation with the Main Line Family Law Center), says that change is possible, and it doesn’t have to take years and years. During a recent telephone interview, she told me she’s coached individuals to greater happiness in just a few sessions.

What’s her secret?

Change Your Habits and Change Your Life
Laver says that in any relationship each party has developed a habitual response to certain triggers (i.e., “hot buttons”), and if we decide to change those habits we can change the situation. The key is coming to understand how these habits have developed, why they aren’t working, and what we can do about it.

According to Laver, “Research shows that 50% of our predisposition to see the glass as either half empty or half full is determined by genetics, and 10% is determined by our environment. So, a more difficult environment can make for a more unhappy person. But the good news is that leaves 40% up for grabs. We can control what we think … retrain the brain to ‘go down a new pathway.’”

In other words, we don’t have to let our relatives drive us crazy.

What Laver suggests sounds suspiciously like the power of positive thinking, which makes this glass-half-empty girl (hey, it’s genetic, remember?) a little skeptical. However, (mercifully) Laver isn’t saying we can make things true by wishing them so. Instead, she’s advocating adopting a deliberate mindfulness about what we will believe and act upon.

Says Laver, “When your relative complains about the dry turkey or how that dress doesn’t look that great on you, instead of focusing on you, you can turn the situation around and ask yourself, ‘What is going on with this person that [he or she] would say that to me?” In other words Q-TIP, or quit taking it personally.

It also helps to set goals in advance of the get together. Who would you like to spend time with? Which subjects are fair game and which would you prefer to avoid? Perhaps everyone is wondering when you’ll get married, have a baby, or get a job, and you’re dreading the moment the topic is broached. Instead, says Laver, give yourself permission to tell your curious relative “I’m really glad that you’re interested, but I’d rather not talk about that today. What else can we talk about?”

Ultimately, according to Laver, it’s about taking action to transform relationships that aren’t satisfying into ones that are.

“How will you get honor, regard, and respect from your relationships?” Laver asks.

One way is to test perceptions by asking questions. Because look, it’s not always about the other person. If a criticism hits a mark, and you think there may be a genuine issue, take the critic aside and gently probe for clarification. Laver advises asking your relative “Is there something important you think I should know?” and listening for the answer.

Each year the holidays come and then go, but your family is your family for life. Make this year the year you give the best gift ever—the gift of a renewed, more honest and more fulfilling relationship with someone you love.

Check out Adina Laver's website, Divorce Essentials (http://www.divorceessentials.net) or contact her at http://www.mainlinedivorcemediator.com/delaware-county-divorce-attorney or via email at adinalaver@gmail.com. You can also access a Main Line Family Law Center recording of “Surviving the Holidays When Preparing for Divorce here.


  1. Q-TIP is always good. Nine times out of ten--or at least eight--it's the other person's stuff. It's called projection, and everyone does it. Great article. I would only add "Take care of yourself." Give yourself permission to leave the room, go for a walk, take a nap when things get too much.

    1. Good advice, Willem (and here I thought I was the only person who just falls asleep when she doesn't want to be bothered anymore)!