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Home for the Holidays: How Not to Get Triggered

Three ways to be your best self while being with family.

Key points

  • Spending time with family can easily make someone revert back to immature and self-limiting behavior.
  • Instead of reacting to old triggers, one can learn to take responsibility for their own emotions.
  • Compassion and consistent self-care allow one to remain balanced and resourced during one of the most stressful times of the year.

The holiday season is the most magical time of the year. But for many, it's also the most challenging, especially when returning home and spending time with family. Do you also find that within a short amount of time staying with your folks, you lose touch with your adult self and revert to a younger version of yourself? For me, it usually took only 48 hours to argue with my dad about politics, be annoyed with my mom for not allowing me to help her, and compete with my sister. Lo and behold, I felt like an angry teenager who could not wait for the holidays to be over. With expert precision, my family seemed to push the buttons they had installed a long time ago.

Yet, reverting to old patterns isn’t just the prerogative of adult children. It also happens to parents, who sometimes forget that their grown-up kids no longer need to be told how to live their lives. But how can we avoid triggering each other and be more patient and understanding?

Here are three ways to get ready for trigger-free holidays:

  1. Emotional responsibility: Be aware of outdated emotional and behavioral patterns, such as being judgmental, standoffish, complacent, demanding, too pleasing, or controlling. Then set your intention on how you want to think, feel, and act while spending time with your family. Visualize the situations and conversations that typically trigger you, and rehearse how, instead of reacting and acting out, you can engage with greater calmness and emotional maturity. Taking responsibility for our feelings means accepting that nobody can make us feel anything without our permission. While we cannot control the people around us, we can always choose how we respond to them.
  2. Compassionate awareness: One of the challenges during the holidays, especially for more sensitive people, is that they quickly pick up on the emotions and energy of others. You may have had an experience similar to this: You come down for breakfast and immediately feel uneasy and tense. Although you’re tempted to turn on your heels and leave, you force yourself to stay, but not without scolding yourself for once again feeling anxious and insecure among your family members. But what if your uneasiness wasn’t your own, at least not entirely? What if it stemmed from your overwhelmed mom, grumpy dad, or defensive sibling? If you knew you’d just tuned into the tension in the room that existed before you came in, you’d be able to say to yourself, “Whatever I’m feeling has nothing to do with me. I’m wondering who’s stressed out here?” And even when an uncomfortable question or critical remark from your family activates your "inner teenager," use compassion to remind yourself that those who triggered you must also deal with their own set of holiday challenges. Compassionate awareness makes it easier to accept other people’s emotions and behaviors without feeling the need to judge, avoid, or take responsibility for them.
  3. Committed self-reliability: Theoretically, it would make sense that our self-care is impeccable and consistent as we go through one of the most stressful times of the year. Yet, like many people, you may find it easier to overextend yourself to please others than to commit to the routines that keep you balanced and grounded. You may eat too much of the food you typically avoid, drink more than you want, and sleep less than you need. You don’t spend any time alone, stop meditating, and don’t keep up with your work obligations because you feel the expectations of your family to spend as much time as possible with them. Although it can be pleasant and refreshing to step out of the routines of our daily lives, a lack of self-care and self-responsibility ultimately leads to a "holiday hangover" of stress, frustration, and resentment.

To avoid getting triggered during the holidays, we need to maintain a healthy balance between indulging in the season's sweetness and staying committed to what we know generally makes us feel positive, centered, and empowered. After all, whether we are parents, children, or both, the greatest gift we can give our loved ones and ourselves is our best selves.

More from Friedemann Schaub M.D., Ph.D.
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