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  • Writer's pictureLisa Gottlieb

Using NVC to navigate the holiday season

As we move into late fall and begin thinking of Thanksgiving and winter holidays, for many of us this time of year is a season marked by stress, provocation, and disappointment instead of joyful anticipation and excitement.

If you follow social media sites like TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook it can look like everyone is having a wonderful time out there except for you. If you also expose yourself to daily news and sites like Twitter, you may be overwhelmed with a sense of despair and hopelessness. This overload of information can contribute to dread over facing the holiday season.

Mix all of this with continuing concerns with COVID, today’s divisive political climate, the increased cost of daily living along with societal pressure to overspend on gifts, plus the stress and aggravation of travel, being with family during the holidays can often be the scene of conflict rather than contentment. Another strain in getting together with family is falling back into the familiar roles we have played in our families since childhood, with often unhappy results.

In previous newsletters, we have offered suggestions for using Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to manage aggravation and annoyances by having empathy for oneself, while considering other people’s experiences so that we may build connection and understanding. Because the holidays are like everyday life’s challenges "on steroids", let’s turn our attention to how we can care even more for ourselves, use strategies to more easily connect with others, and create healthy personal boundaries to navigate challenging situations and people.

Up your self-care:

  • Try to get outside for even a brief walk in the morning. Exposure to sunshine early in the day helps regulate our circadian rhythms which can impact our sleep and well-being. The light in the sky can be helpful even on a cloudy day. Link to research here.

  • Although mindfulness meditation can be challenging for some, even 5 minutes a day of focused, intentional breathing in a quiet space with no distractions can contribute to normal blood pressure, more self-regulation and lowered anxiety.

  • Prioritize yourself and pay attention to the activities that bring you happiness and self-connection. Wherever possible make space for these activities, even as the season gets busier for you.

  • Reach out to people in your life who offer you kindness and support. Often when someone is stressed, anxious, or depressed, they tend to isolate and imagine they are a burden to loved ones. Part of patriarchy is the belief that pushing through difficulties on our own, and proving that we are self-reliant to feel good about ourselves creates even more burden. This is a myth. None of us are meant to navigate difficult times on our own. Humans are pack animals, and we need other people. This isn’t a sign of weakness, or something to feel shame about. Instead reaching out to others takes courage and is often worthwhile.

  • This can be a lonely time for many people, especially those who have lost loved ones, or have low social connections. If you are lonely, give yourself some loving empathy, and consider ways to connect with other people that are low pressure and high reward. Maybe a book club, joining a yoga or exercise class, or volunteering in an area that is meaningful to you can help you connect. If you are someone with strong social connections and many opportunities to be with other people, consider people in your orbit who may be alone and would enjoy hearing from you.

  • Be sure to offer yourself as much choice as possible this season to remove extra stress related to agreeing to parties, activities, or events that you don’t feel are enlivening, supportive, or emotionally safe. If you aren’t in a position to say no, consider spending less time at a party or event than you might have in the past.

  • If you are part of a gift-giving family, consider ways to lessen the financial burden by discussing early on what the expectations are for gift spending, and even suggest other ways to celebrate than by buying more things that may not even be needed or wanted.

Leading with Empathy:

  • When you are in a situation that feels tense or conflictual, if it’s not possible to remove yourself, turn to self-empathy to up your self connection, and notice what is important to you in that moment. If you feel your body tension increasing, bring your attention to relaxing different muscle groups by constricting and then releasing. Take a few slow deep breaths, and to yourself you can say, “Inhale into sensation, exhale into calm”. Remember, most of the time you can choose whether someone else has the power to provoke or aggravate you.

  • There may be times when someone makes an offensive comment, shares a racist, bigoted or misogynistic opinion or joke, or offers information as fact that you know is false. These kinds of statements, comments, and attempts at humor can be very upsetting when you are committed to a more just and equitable way of being in the world. Leaving the situation or remaining quiet doesn’t meet your needs to be authentic and take a stand for what is important to you. In these situations, it’s helpful to use the NVC strategy of saying what you are feeling and what you are needing, instead of telling the person what is wrong with them. For example, instead of saying to someone, “you are a racist for telling that joke!” consider saying, “I don’t like or appreciate that joke, because making fun of minoritized groups (or whatever the joke is about) isn’t funny. I value respect and equitable treatment for everyone and prefer other kinds of humor”.

  • If you are annoyed, irritated, or impatient with people in a social setting, and you have the capacity, imagine what it might be like to be them. A negative story that you might carry about a family member or friend has the potential to shift into what their underlying need may be. Perhaps the loudmouthed, obnoxious, and arrogant person who you are stuck sitting next to is actually someone with low self-esteem, or lacking in emotional intelligence. This isn’t giving a pass to someone who would benefit from being accountable for poor behavior, however, a little empathy for them can sometimes shift you out of a negative mindset and lead to the potential for more enjoyment. Much of the time we can choose how personally we want to take someone else’s behavior.

Setting Personal Boundaries:

Sometimes all the strategies in the world to attempt to accept people for who they are simply does not meet your own needs for self-care, protection, and emotional safety. In these cases being able to set clear, matter-of-fact personal boundaries are what is necessary for you. This isn’t always easy, yet letting other people know what you will tolerate and what you won’t is reasonable and important for your own mental and physical health. September 2022's newsletter focused on how to set and share personal boundaries. As a reminder, focus on you, and what you want or don’t want, and avoid telling other people what they can or cannot do. For example, instead of saying, “Stop talking to me that way!”, you can say, “When I hear you say that, I’m uncomfortable, and it doesn’t feel ok to me. If you continue to talk this way, I’ll take some space and we can try again later.”

One Last Suggestion

As a final suggestion, I offer you an invitation to hold yourself with acceptance and grace as you move through these next few months. Practice daily empathy and gratitude, find an empathy buddy, share your gratitudes with other people, and give yourself as many opportunities as possible to enjoy the holiday season in the ways that are meaningful to you.

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