MDABC December Newsletter
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MDABC December Newsletter

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Navigating Family Dynamics this Holiday Season

by david bowes

On your mark, get set, and .. it’s holiday season.  Along with all the hustle and bustle of this season, for some of us, this time of year also means being around family – sometimes LOTS of family – and, that is not always an easy thing.  While family gatherings can be wonderful for the lucky few, for others of us, they can range from being uncomfortable to downright terrifying.  Family dynamics are a complicated thing, especially if you throw extended family into the mix.  Indeed, even the ‘best’ of families come with messy dynamics, and the more ‘dysfunctional’ ones .. well .. think messy to the power of ten.  So with that in mind, we figured that an article about navigating family dynamics would be a good – and hopefully helpful – idea for this edition of our newsletter. 
To begin with, being around family can often evoke old roles, mindsets, and memories that have been unhelpful or even hurtful to us.  If we let them, they can draw us into patterns of thinking, feeling, and behavior that we thought we’d left behind (or are in the process of leaving behind).  So, before, entering into the fray of your family this season, it can be helpful to identify any unhelpful roles, or patterns of relating, or “games” that you’ve been sucked into in the past.  Simply being aware of these family dynamics can keep you from getting baited into them unawares.  And, with understanding, we can cultivate compassion.  So, if possible, try to realize everyone in your family is fumbling through their imperfections, hurts, and ingrained coping strategies.
The fact is, hurt people hurt people, and you are likely not the only one in your family to be struggling with family dynamics this season.  So with mindful understanding, try to invoke compassion for yourself and for your family members; and, in this spirit, avoid getting caught up in playing out past hurts in the present.  This can be very difficult when people are expecting you to act or react in certain ways.  And, it can be hard to respond with compassion to entrenched unhealthy patterns of relating and the people who are playing them out.  So, try to at least have compassion on yourself and accept where you’re at - if you need to, find a way to exit unhealthy situations as soon as possible and find other, more positive family members to interact with.
Another trap to avoid is what I call “projection-backlash”.  Basically, this is where you ‘project’ onto family members your own insecurities and anxiety about how you think they must perceive you, and then interact with them accordingly - feeling all of these projections coming back at you from them (even though this may not be the case at all).  Here, again, having awareness and compassion for yourself is key.  If possible, acknowledge your anxieties for what they are and what they are not.  They are simply thoughts and feelings.  And, while these patterns of thought and feeling likely have a history with you, they are not YOU!  The fact of the matter is that YOU are an amazing, unique, one-of-a-kind miracle-of-consciousness containing a universe of potential and brilliance.  Just trust me on this one – it’s true even if you don’t particularly feel it at the moment.  That said, try to approach your family with a “beginners mind” and focus on your present-moment interactions with them - as opposed to allowing anxiety or depression to dictate in advance how you will feel and interact.  Again, this is easier said than done.  So if you find yourself stuck in the midst of some “projection backlash” that’s ok.  Perfection ain’t possible in family dynamics.  So if things get messy, have compassion for yourself.  Family settings can be the hardest places to put your best intentions, mindful awareness, and personal work into practice!
Next, we come to the obstacle of dealing with critical comments from family members.  Critical words can hurt – especially when they come from family.  And, while some negativity is just plain negativity, often criticism from family is a poorly crafted attempt at expressing care and concern.   So, with this in mind, it can be helpful to respond to criticism using “I” statements which assume care such as: “I understand that you want the best for me, but when you say it that way I feel hurt and criticized”.  You may be pleasantly surprised at the results.  If your response to criticism is well received, you can even take things a step further suggest to the “critic” how they could express their care to you in a way that is more positive and helpful.
Also, within family dynamics, there are often a whole lot of spoken or unspoken expectations.  And, expectations can be a huge burden to shoulder.  When we burden ourselves with “shoulds” such as: “I should be there more for my parents”; or, “I should be more successful”; or, “I should be more extroverted tonight”; etc., we can take away from the unique presence we bring to our families.  So in the words of Albert Ellis (founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy), “DON’T SHOULD ON YOURSELF”!  Try to identify the “shoulds” that may creep in and try to make you feel guilty.  With that awareness, you have a better shot at avoiding them and just enjoy being yourself.
Finally, instead of drawing this out into a full novel of an article, here are a few more suggestions in point form that some of us have found helpful in navigating family dynamics - both in general and especially during the holiday season.
  • Before going into a family gathering, set your boundaries in advance and, if possible, make them known.  If you need to leave a situation that is unhealthy and out of your control, that’s OK!  Have an exit strategy in place and use it if necessary.
  • If anxiety or other overwhelming feelings are starting to creep in, try taking mini breaks.  Go to the washroom, get some fresh air, go and smoke a Christmas cigar (or pretend to), or find some task you can do (such as helping in the kitchen or with clean up).
  • Avoid the booze in an attempt to loosen up or escape your feelings.  In 97.875% of stressful family situations too much alcohol only makes things worse.
  • Surround yourself with your “allies”.  E.g. certain cousins, siblings, or other relatives you feel comfortable with and who are supportive.  If possible, talk to them in advance about any struggles you might have being around your family (or certain members thereof).  You can even plan ways in which they can “rescue” you from certain individuals, conversations, and/or situations.
  • Minimize your interactions with difficult relatives.  Remember: it’s okay to walk away from a conversation that’s rubbing you the wrong way and finding someone else to connect with.
  • If there is too much unresolved trauma in your family (or with a particular person who will be at a family gathering) it is OK to bail on a family gathering altogether.  It’s not worth it to subject yourself to extreme toxicity and/or re-traumatization just in order to be a “good” member of the family. (remember: don’t should on yourself).  If this is the case, process it with your therapist and, if possible, communicate to a supportive family member why you will not be attending.  Instead, plan some other way to celebrate the holidays that will nourish your well-being.
  • Make sure you’ve had enough rest and had something to drink/eat before your family gathering.  Being sleep deprived, hungry and/or dehydrated can sometimes amplify difficult situations.
  • Pick your battles AND savor the good moments.
  • Practice lots of self-care before and after these family events.  You can even plan some kind of a reward for yourself after the holidays are done.
One of my professors once rightly stated: “life is messy and family dynamics are even more so”; however, with a bit of forethought and awareness, we can navigate these complexities a lot better than we might imagine.  Best of luck to you all, and Happy Holidays.

‘Tis the Season for Perfectionism

by Rose Record
The holidays can be an enjoyable, yet frantic and busy time of year.  The holidays often come with a process of preparing, interacting, celebrating, entertaining, traveling and more.  For many, this process can come with a considerable amount of pressure to have the “perfect” holiday – this could be anything from finding the perfect gift, to having the perfect family meal, to getting along and interacting with all of our friends and family members perfectly. 

Like many things in life; however, the holidays don’t always go according to plan or we just aren’t able to do everything we want to do and see everyone we were hoping to see. This could lead to feeling defeated, disappointed or overwhelmed for not meeting our standards of perfection.  Furthermore, striving for perfection can be a lot of work physically, emotionally, and psychologically.  All of that work can be draining and can lead to a feeling of “holiday burnout”.

It can be important throughout the year, but particularly around the holidays, to be fair, kind and compassionate to ourselves. Important questions to ask are “is it fair, reasonable, or balanced for me to expect everything to be perfect?” and “if everything wasn’t just-right what might still go right?” This allows the opportunity to be “good enough” and still feel good about ourselves and have space to enjoy the holidays.

Another important strategy for dealing with the pressure to be perfect that may accompany the holidays is to use coping strategies to reduce holiday stress and/or to schedule in times to take a break from the pressure.  Some examples of what this might look like is taking time to read a favorite book, enjoying a cup of tea, going for a walk with a friend or family member, and/or practicing mindfulness and relaxation before a big holiday event. These strategies can help us emotionally slow down, take a break from all of the holiday frenzy and ultimately, lower stress levels.

Whatever your go-to coping strategies are, it can be important to be aware of what strategies are most helpful for you and when it may be helpful to engage in them. The goal being to enjoy a happy, healthy, and balanced holiday season, no matter how perfectly it goes. 

Happy Holidays!?... Bah humbug

by Jenny West

Whether it’s the Christmas cheer, the Christmas music, a busy schedule, spending time with loved ones or not having loved ones to send the holidays with some of us just don’t like this time of year. I’m one of those people. And I know I’m not alone.

The problem I have found with letting people know you’re not a big fan of the holiday season is that you feel like a bit of a failure because you can’t get in to the spirit that everyone seems to have bucket loads of. The bright flashing lights and constant drone of Christmas carols don’t help; in fact, I find that my mood gets worse around them. I start thinking that there is something wrong with me and I might be a horrible human being, but I’m not.

The truth of it is, some of us just don’t like the holidays and that is perfectly normal. Some people don’t like Halloween, St. Patrick’s day or Easter either and that’s normal too. So don’t be ashamed that you don’t like a particular time of year, embrace what you do like and make it your own. 

*This is actually my "tree" for the holidays.

The Wonder of Generosity

by david bowes
Generosity is a powerful thing and a huge concept to grapple with in a short article.  And, to be honest, it feels a bit cliché to be writing on generosity at this time of year.  Nevertheless, I am going to generously give it a shot and hope the outcome is a bit different than you might expect.  That said, as you are likely to expect - along with most everything else - generosity has been the subject of many social/psychological studies, and yes – spoiler alert – it’s good for you.  But let’s begin at the beginning shall we. 
Interestingly, the modern word generosity derives from the Latin word generōsus, which means “of noble birth” and originally was used in reference to aristocracy or noble lineage as opposed to giving per se.  However, generosity has evolved to currently be defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as:  “the quality of being kind, understanding, and not selfish: the quality of being generous; especially: willingness to give money and other valuable things to others.”  So, generosity has come a long way; however, the connection is clear – it is a noble thing to be generous. 
Every major religion prescribes the practice of generosity, and most every commentator on living a ‘good life’ (religious or not) promotes generosity.  So it’s not like we need research to tell us that being generous is a good thing.  For instance, in his classic philosophical inquiry into the “good life” - Nichomachean Ethics (initially published in 350 BC) - the Greek philosopher Aristotle (tutor to Alexander the Great) situated generosity as the third virtue on his top twelve list.  He defined generosity as giving to the right persons and/or causes at the right times and in the right amounts.  He also added that generosity had to do with taking proper care of one’s own possessions and that it is a virtue that should be cultivated as a way of life – not an occasional one-off kind of thing. 
Inasmuch as we don’t really need research to tell us generosity is good, the nifty thing about the research is that it can tell us specifically HOW generosity is good for us – and the benefits are manifold.  Recently a meta-analysis (a study of studies) was done on generosity which concluded that freely giving to others not only improves ones well-being and life satisfaction, but it's also linked with decreased depression and a lower risk of dying early.  Other studies show that generosity improves marital satisfaction, work satisfaction, and that it releases the powerful neurotransmitter oxytocin which banishes stress and anxiety and primes us to form strong interpersonal connections.  It’s important to note here that generosity is not so much about “giving till it hurts” - overextending one’s self or one’s finances to the extreme.  Rather, generosity is a virtue or value that can be manifested in all sorts of ways and situations both large and small.  For instance, generosity can simply look like taking the time to do a random act of kindness for a friend, partner, or stranger – it doesn’t have to cost a lot (or anything for that matter) and it can be a splendidly mischievous thing.  It’s primarily about the spirit in which you give of yourself.  And, the spirit of generosity is a contagious and wonder-full thing – think “Pay it Forward”.
Generosity not only gets us out of ourselves, it tangibly breaks through various unhealthy mentalities, paradigms, and barriers in our world and ourselves which can tend to prevent us from connecting to one another and to “the greater good”.  Freely giving of oneself, one’s time, and one’s ‘treasure’ to others really does transport you into a state of gratitude and connection (both of which are also proven to be very good for you).  So, in light of all that, I encourage you to: firstly, make it through the holiday season with intact; and then, think of creative ways you can cultivate your generosity – if you sow into this way of life, methinks you will be pleasantly surprised with what you reap. 

Homemade Gifts? Yes Please!

by Polly Guetta

It can be tempting to overspend at this time of year but research is clear that debt is related to poor mental and physical health. There are many ways to give generously without spending beyond your means and one way is to give personalized coupons as gifts. My kids make these for me often and I have to say that it feels great when they take the time to make something that is just for  me.

You can download these simple coupons, fill them out with that special person in mind and tie them together with a ribbon. Or make your own with your own artwork or photos! Great gifts don’t have to cost an arm and a leg!

Click below to download the coupon template.


This article is also on the MDABC blog, if you would like to see any of our other articles click here.

Copyright © 2015 Mood Disorders Association of BC, All rights reserved.

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