I want to read and learn all I can, write thoughtfully and truthfully, live according to reason and ever more mature wisdom, and savor every wonderful little gift of life.
This one goes out to all of you who feel stressed about the social interactions that will take place at your family holiday gatherings. Whether it’s because some of your family members are judgmental toward you or otherwise difficult to get along with, or because there will just be too many people and you’ll be tempted to hide in a bedroom and read a book, I feel your pain and wish you strength. And I hope you’ll wish the same for me!
As I’ve often expressed on this blog, I ceaselessly struggle with the balance between staying true to myself when I’m in social settings–my true self is an introvert who vastly prefers quiet, thoughtful conversations with likeminded friends to busy social gatherings–and yet being friendly, warm, kind, and open with people, because that is something I value.
I’ll let you know when I’ve figured it out.
In the meantime, I struggle on, trying to endure the noise and other social discomforts of family gatherings, parties, and other social events, and trying to stay self-aware so that I can learn and practice new tricks and techniques. (I’m always taking suggestions if you have any!)
Here are a few keys I have discovered so far, along with some supporting quotes from characters in literature (because literature always helps us feel less alone!):
1. Give yourself permission to talk less and to take a listening role instead. One thing I’ve finally figured out is that other people love to talk—which means I don’t always have to. Just ask a few questions as needed, nod/react, and listen (or take a mental vacation if you must and if you can still listen at least partially—some of us are better at multi-tasking with our attention than others). This works best when you can cultivate a calm demeanor rather than an anxious one, which might just draw more attention to yourself. But that’s easier said than done, I know.
Lucy in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette says, “In quarters where we can never be rightly known, we take pleasure, I think, in being consummately ignored.” —meaning, when we’re with people who don’t understand us and probably never will, there’s more pleasure to be found in accepting that fact and just lying low—such as by listening more than talking—than in trying to make ourselves known and understood.
2. Give yourself permission to sometimes slip away for a break and/or to busy yourself with some useful task that visibly occupies your attention (for example, setting up a kid’s new toy, fixing Grandma’s TV settings, washing dishes, cleaning up wrapping paper, taking pictures, etc.).
Katniss in The Hunger Games (the book) says, “I just need a few moments of privacy where I can let any emotion cross my face without being seen.” I love this line because I relate to it so much!
3. If you, like me, struggle with preserving your personal/emotional boundaries, especially when you’re with family, consider using this trick that helped me a lot when I first was trying to create some psychic distance between myself and my family. Before the visit, take a sheet of paper and make two lists: “Topics I Am Allowed to Talk About” and “Topics I Am Not Allowed to Talk About.” The person doing the allowing, of course, is yourself. “Not Allowed” topics will probably be personal and vulnerable areas such as your love life, your still-unhatched thoughts about your future, your political opinions and religious beliefs, and anything else that is a sensitive area for you. “Allowed” topics will likely include surface-level things that you have in common with your family and that won’t push anyone’s buttons—for example, pets, TV shows, music, food, etc. It’s helpful to have actually listed them in writing because in the moment when you are feeling pressured to talk about one of the “Not Allowed” topics, you can quickly recall one of the “Allowed” topics and make a swift subject change.
This quote isn’t directly related, but it eloquently describes an admirable (though perhaps impossible?) goal to aim for: “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-reliance”
4. Remember that there’s a difference between being kind to people and being a caretaker of their feelings and/or being nice out of fear that they won’t like you. (I wrote about this recently; it’s another big area of learning I’m going through.) When I’m in the moment, it’s helpful to recall my special mantras, which currently include “It is not my job to take care of anyone else’s feelings” and “I am my own person” (meaning, among other things, that I don’t need other people’s approval).
Emma in Jane Austen’s Emma thinks, “General benevolence, but not general friendship, made a [person] what he [or she] ought to be.” In other words, trying to be kind to everyone is good, but trying to give everyone the impression that they’re our best friend is not. There is a difference.
5. ABOVE ALL: More importantly than anything else, do anything and everything you can to soothe yourself and keep a calm mind. Ideally, indulge in relaxing, meditative, and/or self-care activities before the event, but this doesn’t always work out when we’re rushing around trying to get everything prepared (gifts, food dishes, etc.). But whatever you can think of to do that might help yourself relax both before and during the event, do it.
Wishing you (and me too) truly peaceful holidays!