The holidays are upon us, those blissful few weeks of tradition and cheer, vacation time, family gatherings – and, according to surveys by the American Psychological Association, boatloads of stress. I want to share how conflict resolution theory and practice can help us deal with the troublesome side of this season. If you’re trolling around the Internet looking for holiday gifts or recipes, you’re likely to bump into troves of gimmicks referring to “holiday stress” (“stress free” holiday recipes, gifts schemes that are sure to help you relax!) It’s become such a trope of American Christmas culture that the Huffington Post has an entire blog post category devoted to it. Insights from conflict resolution and mediation shed light on how it is we end up so stressed as the year draws to a close, and to find some richer, more thoughtful strategies for avoiding conflict and managing hyperstress during the holidays.
Insight mediation is a mediation strategy that emphasizes reflection and digging into the root source of a conflict or problem. Sometimes taking notice of where an issue originates can completely change our perspective. By putting some mental distance between the strong emotions we are experiencing and their underlying causes, we may avoid misplaced, displaced, and overblown conflicts (which I wrote about last year at this same time). Below are some possible places to look for the instigators of holiday hyperstress.
Media Climate. In my blog post earlier in the year on conflict climate I emphasized that sometimes we need to look into the world around us to better understand what is causing an interpersonal (or in the case of stress, intrapersonal) shakeup. During the holidays our worlds can look beautiful but there’s also a chaotic commercial world around us that cranks into high gear. Advertisements and other cultural messages constantly tell us how much we have to worry about, how fast the world is moving, and how busy we need to be buying. If the bright, colorful, constant mediated holiday messages get your nerves tense, notice it. Remember those messages all have their own commercial motives embedded in them. Take a deep breath, and focus on something that really brings you joy.
Money. Finances are a major worry for people around the holiday season. This subject requires a thoughtful and measured approach. It’s wonderful to be able to give one another gifts to express appreciation and care, but without remaining reflective it can become an insidious source of stress, even expanding into a spirit of competitiveness. If it’s a group issue, perhaps among your family, try having an open conversation about how to deal with the dual pressures of gifting and balancing the budget. Look for adult relationships that can help you feel supported if you need to dial back the spending this year.
Relationships. While catching up with loved ones can sound ideal, the holidays put us into social interactions with higher frequencies and intensities than usual. We all know that the holidays are a perfect time for a deep-seated issue to rupture into a conflict. Taking some time to reflect on the this aspect of a gathering before you arrive can help it feel less difficult and painful when someone hits a nerve in conversation. Decide ahead of time how you might deal with such a situation. On the other hand, consider how those nerves so often get hit. How present are we with our loved ones when we see them over the holidays? Do we take the time to sit down and hear where they are in their lives or do we play the same script about who they are? Life is a complex journey, and each year we are all dealing with a different moment of personal growth, a different set of struggles or successes. Letting your family be “new” to you during the holidays can provide fertile ground, for a real growth in relationships, rather than the mechanical small talk we are all so familiar with. Remember you still have things to learn from and with each other, and maybe new things to share. Look here or here for some more help on how to deal with family conflict over the holidays.
Time. While it’s nice, being so present with everyone, but time feels in such short supply over the holidays! In her Huffpost piece, Cara McDonough reminds us that sometimes “no” is the best answer. On Forbes “16 Ways to Beat Holiday Stress” you will find “Respect your Limits” at number two. This can be a very acute source of stress and conflict – are you really annoyed with that person? Or is it because you just took on too much and you are struggling to handle everything? Is it better to try and pack everything in? Or explain to some people in a genuine manner that you really want some time to slow down, and catch up with your family, for example? You can choose how you arrange your time, instead of letting stress choose you.
In addition to those I’ve addressed here, other sources of stress or conflict may come up unpredicted this holiday season and catch you off guard, but with mindful practice you can use the same strategy – put your emotions at a distance for a moment, and locate what’s causing that tension to rise in your chest. Perhaps you can break those negative associations from the holidays themselves altogether!
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.