How can I hold onto my lifeskills at family gatherings?

I find when I’m around other people for sustained periods – through no fault of theirs, really –  I let my good habits slip. What’s going on under the surface?  

Temper tantrum

Tantrums are dodgy. And emotionally expensive. Argh! But can we control them? © Laura Eades 2013

This year, we’re going on a little winter holiday instead of a family Christmas. But I’ve been honoured with family visits through the year. I love (and even like!) my family, but afterwards, it takes a while to piece my routine – and my positive habits – together again. What happens?

  1. I don’t want visitors to feel that our time together isn’t precious… I use it as an excuse to stop going to yoga or running.
  2. I’m also being indulgent, or being a good host, and so I make (and eat) a lot more treats.
  3. The self-criticism starts. The everybody criticism starts. Result: an emotionally erratic person prone to temper and stress.

Here are some questions I ask myself:

1. Is it just plain old regression?

Does abandoning your self-care have a history? Have certain triggers? Many of my self-destructive behaviours  – fingerbiting, overeating, a can’t-do approach to sport, drinking – date back to my teens, where most families would say they ran into conflict.

In our teens, we start fighting with the people who’ve been taking care of us. When we’re all at odds, we’re not looking after each other. Well, everyone has their own unique response to these scenarios – mine was self-pity. I refused to look after myself, although I was perfectly capable of doing so.

What can be done about this?

  • I’ve shown myself repeatedly what it costs me to abandon my fundaments of self-care – exercise, and slowing down on the eating. So I need to take a compassionate view, and know what these things mean to me; make firm commitments. 

2. Do you start your Christmas visit with good intentions, and then…?

Your self-control gets very tired.

I let my habits slip because my willpower is spent on tolerance. In other words, I’m using up my willpower trying not to be a childish, irritable bitch.

Making Habits, Breaking Habits, says: “everyone’s self-control is a limited resource. It’s like muscle strength, the more we use it, the less remains in the tank, until we replenish it with rest”. Jeremy Dean describes studies in which participants were asked to resist chocolate, and then do a frustrating task. The length of time participants were able to continue the frustrating task for was considerably shorter if they had first ‘depleted their tank of willpower’ by resisting the chocolate temptation.

What can be done about this?

  • Can I try to use humour, and relax,  – instead of just trying to cap my responses with willpower? 
  • Can I replace wishing people were different by being interested in seeing them as who they distinctly are? Zenhabits has a few tips on this.
  • Can I make breathers part of the visit? – hell, they could probably use a rest from me! – Walks? Meditation?

3. Are you losing your sense of your present self?

Is it a familiar feeling to feel, after a few days with your family, not quite ‘yourself’ any more? It’s depressing not expressing yourself, or worse, unselfing yourself; holding back. Perhaps it’s harder to communicate your current inner world to your family than to others; to say how you’ve recently changed. When I’m with my friends, there’s the motivational strength-gathering of knowing that you are in evolution – since we talk about our internal changing worlds quite a bit. My family really make an effort to talk about what’s new within us, but it’s a real challenge.

What can be done about this?

I don’t honestly know the answers to this. I feel like we all need some kind of conversation reschooling! But these things come to mind:

  • Although my psyche screams at me not to, I’m rewarded when I make an effort to be real, and to take an active part, since it’s my habit to retreat. I know my family would like me to try to respect that they are evolving too, and not hold too tightly to ‘old’ ideas of them
  • Have a thing you can do anywhere – that music (ah, that’s why I need to learn ukulele!), your drawing, work on your novel an hour a day – that brings you into the present you are now

4. Are you being a ‘good host’?

You set aside prioritising yourself as an act of host’s generosity. But it’s a costly sacrifice, and it’s unnecessary. You’re not responsible for guests’ happiness so much as your own – but we all know the feeling of not wanting to be responsible for anyone anymore (let alone our wayward, grimy inner rock star).

What can I do about this? 

  • Keep a sense of personal responsibility. I mustn’t use guests as an excuse – they won’t be offended if I go for a walk! They’ll probably be more relaxed.
  • Guests don’t expect a feast every day. I’m just looking for a reason to whip up that dish I’ve seen a photo of. I need to find some non-food ways to show love and share.

Look to the future now!

You might wonder why I see my family at all, if it has such a world-rocking effect on my sense of myself. Believe me, if you’re one of my dear ones reading this, or a visitor to our Berlin household, that your visits mean the world to me and I don’t want the answer to be a hermit’s life – I’m surprised as I write this to discover how much I can do at my end to be a more chipper Laura.

There’s so much to be gained by being better around the tribe. If I didn’t lose myself, and were better able to keep a grip on my life skills, I might even stand a chance of sharing a lot more with you all in the long run, and our relationship warming us and changing with us throughout my life.

Happy Christmas, by the way!

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How are you at managing this kind of situation? Do you have any bright ideas to get a step ahead so you avoid a Christmas meltdown and have less of a cleanup operation on your hands come New Year? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Click on the pale grey dot with a plus sign to open up the comment thread