Movies and television commercials often paint the holiday season with “perfect” families who experience overflowing love and happiness; but for many people, the reality of the holidays is very different. In a recent session of Stanford University Open Office Hours, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who has taught at Stanford GSB, discussed this gap between what is desired and what is experienced with our relatives during the holiday season. Learn two of McGonigal’s strategies for navigating family stress with compassion, poise and willpower:
1. Go into family situations knowing what you’re willing to give
If friction exists between your family members, should you even spend time with them over the holidays? Skipping the get-together could leave you feeling disappointed, but attending could be toxic. McGonigal notes that the deeper pain will be present no matter what you decide to do. But remember that you do have a choice; no one can force you to spend time with your family. The key is recognizing that you get to make the decision based on your own values; approach the situation with an awareness of what you are willing to give to your relatives and yourself.
2. Exercise compassion for others who are suffering
Dealing with family stress during the holidays can feel very isolating, like you are the only one without a “perfect” group of loved ones. McGonigal suggests exercising self compassion by broadening your perspective to think of other types of people who are also suffering this time of year. People are dealing with grief this holiday season after losing a child, spouse or parent; some families are separated by war; others are spending their first holiday in prison. “There are so many ways in which countless people are meeting their own gap between what they might idealize for the holidays and what their reality is,” says McGonigal. Think of your place within this larger group to help find compassion and acceptance for whatever challenges you are facing this year.