Family tension can ignite even during the most well-intentioned holiday gatherings.
Maybe you're all together and another family member starts disciplining their child in front of the group. You feel uncomfortable with their style of parenting, but you're pretty sure it's best not to say anything.
Or perhaps dinner is being served later than you anticipated and your own child is beginning to act out. You find yourself losing patience, the tone of your voice sharpening as you attempt to keep yourself and your child in control.
Then there's always that one comment that pushes you over the edge: A mother-in-law who insists every single family member be invited to dinner, or your Uncle Frank who has too much to drink and forgets the importance of monitoring his language around small children.
You already know that you really have no control over what other people say and do. You might like to offer your two cents, but in the end, when you get a group of people together who are joined by strong bonds and familiar histories, it's not uncommon for families to experience moments of tension. The key word is “moments.”
The truth of the matter is that the tension is not the problem; rather it's your resistance to fully experiencing it that causes trouble. When you react by thinking or venting (out loud or silently), you are no longer experiencing your feelings. As this occurs, you're likely to get stuck in the past or fearful about the future.
Increasing your ability to be mindful keeps you in the present moment, which is the only place you can fully feel (dissolve) your feelings. It's often unresolved feelings that contribute to unhealthy family dynamics. Handling things in a more mindful way not only decreases your anxiety but allows you to complete the experience, which in turn leaves you feeling more uplifted (rather than exhausted) by your time together.
Before moving in that direction however, it's important for you to get clear on what mindfulness is. According to one of the leading experts, Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness means learning to “pay attention in a particular way, on purpose in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth performed an interesting study looking at over 15,000 individuals. He found, in part, that "we are happiest when we are mindful of the moment, and we’re least happy when the mind is wandering. Happiness is not found in external things at all, but is a power we hold within ourselves.”
This may seem a bit challenging when your three-year-old is having a tantrum, but when you approach a situation mindfully, it's less about controlling others and more about being compassionate and kind toward self. These tips will help you along:
If you were in a car going 50 miles per hour, to safely slow down you would want to gradually reduce your speed. Take a similar approach to incorporating mindfulness into your life. It begins with slowing down just enough so you can feel your feet touching the ground.
One of the best ways to slow yourself down is to get a breath of fresh air. Go outside and feel your feet touch the earth, the breeze on your face, and the air moving in and out of your nose. Give your body permission to release anything that is not serving you. Consider you already have enough courage, strength, and ability to move through the situation. The number one response is to soothe yourself. Your children – and other family members – will benefit greatly from you being calm.
It turns out much of the stress you take in comes through your eyes. If you find yourself wide-eyed (aside from feeling surprised) you can pretty much bet your body is in fight, flight, or freeze mode. This is an internal signal which alerts your vital organs to a possible emergency. Since taking a fragile item away from your child is not really a true emergency, consider thanking your body and taking a moment to close your eyes and re-open them softly. Allow yourself to gaze at one point on the floor or along the horizon (out the window). Notice how this immediately brings you back into the moment.
It takes about six seconds to complete a full breath. The more deeply you breathe into your lower abdomen the better your chances of connecting to the moment. As you inhale, your lower abdomen rises (blowing up like a balloon) and on the exhale it deflates (toward your spine). Inhale, 1, 2, 3. Exhale 3, 2, 1. Consider taking a six-second breath as you're helping out with the dishes or making a pot of coffee.
One of my favorite mantras during times of stress is: I believe in my abilities and strengths. It can be so tempting to focus on other people’s faults when you're feeling pressured or compromised. The reality is when you are reacting to others it is very often your own insecurities, doubts, and frustrations that may be revealing themselves.
As you strengthen your belief in your own abilities you'll increase your tolerance and skills for setting healthy limits. It might seem like boundaries are about the other person but they're actually more about you tuning into yourself in the most loving, kind way possible.