Holidays evoke strong emotions that range from joy, anticipation and love to worry, anxiety and even dread. Beloved traditions and time with loved ones can be fraught with the stress of getting everything done, navigating tension about who is responsible for preparations or conflict about decisions for when and how to spend time together. As we plan for a second winter holiday season during a pandemic, these familiar stressors may be made more difficult by disagreements about vaccinations, masks and in-person or virtual options. These tensions can tip the emotional scales toward dread for some families.

When agreement exists or consensus can be reached, the communal experience more easily offers joy. It is wonderful to enjoy it when that happens. But, when such harmony is difficult to reach, love is put to more of a test. Though it can sound trite and overly simplistic, love really is the key.

For many of us, the impact of the continuing pandemic, as well as great societal polarization, is more intense and destructive than we have previously experienced. Intensely negative circumstances and interactions sometimes seem unrelenting, leaving us feeling exhausted and low on compassion, energy and curiosity for others, even for those people we previously held close and for ourselves. Compassion and curiosity are necessary actions and intentions for loving interactions. While the practice of compassion, curiosity and love is more difficult when we are highly stressed and fatigued, the payoff can be to tip the scales back to joy, or at least to offer more peace and therefore less dread.

Simple, right? Well, yes, it is simple — but it can be far from easy! After all, when we feel hurt or angry it can be much easier to strike out or to withdraw than to practice the sort of compassion and curiosity that might lead us to discuss our needs and hopes with the very people by whom we feel hurt. Still, addressing those needs with the people most involved might also be the best hope for a meaningful change or solution.

Stress can bring out our worst selves, leading us to react from our fears and fatigue without guidance from our values and hopes. Even when we set and hold boundaries and say no to some options, the lasting impact on our own well-being and on our relationships can range widely as a result of what guides us. Responsibly deciding about holiday plans and how to engage with one another based on compassion for one another and ourselves will not eliminate all stress, tension and conflict but it will make it more likely that we have more opportunity to experience as we behave in loving ways toward one another and ourselves. This sort of persistence can bring out our best selves, capable of creative problem-solving and clarity of actions that would otherwise be out of reach.

I talk with many people who yearn to connect lovingly and peacefully with loved ones and who feel blocked from this connection in the midst of significant differences and stress. It is so easy to only focus on differences and on our opinions of how others should change and how they should handle their own stress. Since we cannot control the thoughts, feelings and reactions of another person and since we can only understand about another person as much as they are able to show us and as much as we are open to truly see, that focus on changing another person is always destined to miss the mark and often to do damage.

Instead, persistently guiding ourselves to consider and behave in love offers far more positive possibilities. Loving considerations and actions involve compassion and curiosity for another person and for ourselves. This framework is simple though it can be quite hard to come up with good ideas for how to handle conflict. With persistent compassion and curiosity, better options are usually revealed.

This approach can be boosted and sustained with a willingness to clearly identify and remind oneself of what is most important. For example, is a certain outcome or way of doing something the most important thing? Is loving connection the most important thing? Is behaving in ways that are consistent with your highest values the most important thing? Is being right the most important thing? The answers will sometimes vary but my observation of people who experience more joy and peace have a tendency for more focus on their own highest values and more frequent behavior that is consistent with those values. That also means they tend to simply do less of what is inconsistent with their values and sometimes that alone makes a big difference.

The holiday season again offers many of us an opportunity to refine our own clarity about what is most important and to practice acting accordingly. No matter your particular beliefs, traditions or struggles, this practice will open you to more peace and joy. Surely that is the holiday spirit and is a gift beyond measure.

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Mary McKinney, MA, LMFT McKinney Marriage and Family Therapy Calls and texts: (828) 263-4113

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