While visiting Scotland for the first time, I was met with a shocking, yet obvious, reality – one you could relate to the feeling of a cold breeze sneaking up under your kilt to remind you it’s cold. I was reminded that I am alive. Which, of course, I know and you know, but how often do we really think about this?
It was 2013 and I was embarking on my first pilgrimage for a class in my graduate program. Our final destination was an island called Iona, off the northern coast of Scotland. I started the trip by traveling through northern Europe with my mom before meeting my friends in Edinburgh.
Amongst the many differences I find when traveling outside my home country, there is one that is particularly relevant for this story. At home, my experience has always been that lobbies are on Floor 1, and you always travel up to your room. In this hotel, the lobby was on Level 0 and from there you could either go up or down. Our room was on Level -1. The receptionist gave us our keys and encouraged us to explore the roof of the hotel after getting settled, as there was a great view of the castle and city from there.
The holidays are here again, and for most of us that means spending time with our families. There are people out there who breeze through this perineal family parade, people who don’t get triggered by their parents or siblings or drunk relatives. I don’t know many of these people. As a psychotherapist, these are the stories I hear more often. Most people struggle in one way or another when spending a lot of time with family.
If your family has dysfunctional patterns, spending time with them can be really difficult. I see and hear how quickly being around family can diminish the light of personal growth and self-love that has been achieved. You’d be amazed at how different the experience can be if you show up conscious and prepared.
When we were children, an emotional reality was created for us. We had no say in what was real, we were bound to our family system and what was consciously or unconsciously set as the truth. I work with my clients to break free from old and false belief systems. We work hard to create healthier ways to experience reality as an adult. Often, the holiday season comes along and it can all go out the window. The holidays are a rich with opportunities to fall back into our child-selves and false realities. Somehow, we can physically show up in our adult bodies, and at the same time shrink back into a child frame of mind in which we are unable to access our power. We get triggered. We may be very competent adults when we are distanced from our families, but we easily lose ourselves when thrown back into our family systems.
Here are five ways you can support yourself and find peace as you show up to spend time with your family this holiday season:
Years ago, I was sad and single, working in a job that facilitated a slow emotional death. I had recently broken up with my boyfriend and I felt stuck. My life –for lack of a better term—sucked, or at least it felt like it did. I needed to change it and I knew that I needed to change it. This awareness in and of itself is a powerful first step. I could not continue maintaining a steady, bearable flow of misery! I just couldn’t do it. Some invisible force –call it an ancient wisdom or a screaming inner child – drove me to make a change. Perhaps it was weakness, perhaps it was strength. Who knows and who cares. I’m grateful for it. I started with becoming clear on what I wanted to be different in my life, and then I set goals to make those changes a reality. My awesome roommate wanted to do it with me. We made a list of five goals that we would accomplish in the next six months and put them on a sticky note in the kitchen. Some of them seemed far-fetched: get a new job, have a boyfriend, go on a vacation; I wrote them down anyways.
Let me pause for a moment and tell you a little about the “me” back then, planning these goals, as well as who I was before that.
I was a very sad, lonely, and overweight teenager. I went through a long period of depression and low self-esteem. I had some addictions that I regularly turned to because I needed something to help me feel better. I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was 20, and that only lasted a few weeks. I was kind of a mess.
Fast forward to the “me” in this goal story. I had already accomplished quite a bit thanks to support systems that fell into my path. I lost a lot of weight since high school and I was going on a few years free from any mind-altering substances. I worked at a high-end retail shop selling lingerie for years – and I was great at it. By then I was a college graduate with a degree from the University of Washington, living in a gorgeous apartment with a great city view – all that to say I had quite a bit of potential. So, not just any job or any boyfriend would do. I needed a great boyfriend and a great job. I also wanted to take a great vacation somewhere tropical for at least a week. Things that might not be so easy to just “accomplish” in six months.
But guess what? I accomplished all five of my big goals within my six-month deadline and almost didn’t realize it!
It was March and I was writing in my journal about that particularly hard day; I had just quit my job. But then, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I think I just accomplished my last goal! I ran out to look at the date on my sticky note in the kitchen. My six months were up the NEXT DAY. I had accomplished all five of my goals and I burst into tears. Change is possible!
I spent a week in Mexico over Valentine’s Day. Although I was sad to be away from my great boyfriend (now my husband), he drew a heart in the sand on a different beach 2,000 miles away and sent me a picture to enjoy while I lathered SPF 30 all over myself. I quit my job. I got a better job. I did it.
How did I do it? I am not a superhero. Wait...am I? No, I’m pretty sure I’m just a regular person. Here is how I did it:
1. Have Good Friends
Sometimes this is a tough one. I needed to learn about myself in therapy before I could choose better friendships (and become a better friend myself). In the past, my friendships had felt a bit superficial and there was no true intimacy. We didn’t really know each other’s vulnerabilities and therefore we could not support each other in working through them. But in this span of time, my friendships were essential in accomplishing my goals. Pay attention to your community and support system. Create a good one.
2. Find a Guru
I know, that sounds corny (if you aren’t into it). But I can’t tell you how much time I spent with my guru. I heard someone who inspired me and I invited him into my life. He had books on tape and I would just listen to them over and over. Don’t underestimate the power of a good self-help book. This man changed my life. He was a great support for me when I didn’t know what to do. I loved him so much that I named my pet fish after him.
3. Go to Therapy
Of course I would say this, I am a therapist. But I say this as a student and not a teacher, because therapy changed my life and I believe in it and it’s why I am a therapist. Get to know yourself. Therapy helps with that. Learn your patterns and your vulnerabilities. Learn about yourself so you can fully equip yourself with information about this package you carry around and filter everything through, so you can make things happen! Therapy was the greatest gift I could have ever given myself.
4. Spend Time with Yourself
As I said, I was single and living in a great apartment with a girlfriend. I could spend a lot of time thinking and journaling. I know that this isn’t very easy for everyone. But I think it’s possible to spend a bit more time with yourself than you do. What if, you redirected ½ or even ¼ the time you spend browsing a social media site and turned inward? You could write down a few things you learned, or a few things you feel? Maybe you can go for a walk around the block – alone – and feel your feet hitting the ground. What if you spent just a moment saying hello to yourself? I know this sounds corny, but you are in there and my bet is you ignore yourself too much. Even as you read this, notice who is reading. Say hi.
5. Hold Yourself Accountable
Talk about what you want to accomplish. Don’t let your goals hide inside of you in fear of failure or weakness. Talk about your goals with your therapist, your friends, yourself! Write them down. It worked really well for me to set a date. Know what you want and take baby steps toward improving your life. Know what kind of support will work best for you. Also, know that nobody is perfect and you won’t cause any harm by not perfectly accomplishing your goals. But doing something small is better than doing nothing!
These are the things that worked for me. I love my life. I’ve created it. It is 2017. Time goes by so fast. Start now. Even one simple shift can change your life.