Psychological strategies for a better Christmas
Whether you realise it or not, you may have always had a psychological strategy for managing Christmas. Often the strategies we develop are unconscious and short-term focused, and they change over time depending on the result you are seeking.
As kids, many of us anticipated Christmas with joy
For example, when we were children many of us actively tried to think of strategies to get our presents earlier. When I was 8, I thought I’d found the secret to time travel, thinking that if I went to bed earlier on Christmas Eve, the big day would arrive earlier! My parents must have loved it – quiet children the night before Christmas after all. I didn’t mind being wide awake in my bed at 6 pm in the hope that sleep would arrive despite the daylight and stifling summer heat pouring through my windows. I had my eye on the longer term goal of opening my presents once it was tomorrow – and if I could just get to sleep, I knew tomorrow would come faster!
As adults, many anticipate Christmas with trepidation
But now as a psychologist, I can see that the world of adults is quite different to the world of children. The warm weather, chirping crickets and late sunsets in late November and December means my patients start talking about their “approach to Christmas”, often meaning how they will survive it. Some of the recurring questions I hear include how will I approach this family member? Or that conversation? How will I fit back into the culture of the family as whole – which is very different to how I now see the world?
We might think that if we all grow up in the same family we would hold similar views about how the world works and share the same understanding of how we like to be treated as people. But many of us have learnt often through heartache and tears, that just isn’t the case. And in some ways the expectation of like-mindedness and understanding is the cause of many of our problems around Christmas time – that we want people to understand us from our perspective, from our values, from our world view. However, as is the case in all relationships, happiness is easier to find when we try to see the world from the other person’s worldview.
It’s kind of like going to a different country for a holiday. I remember travelling to Italy in my twenties and meeting other tourists who complained that their hotel didn’t cook their bacon and eggs breakfast properly! It’s a cliche for sure, but I approached travel with the belief that when in Rome, one should do as the Romans do and couldn’t understand why anyone would not want to enjoy the many delectable choices of food in Italy without resorting to what you like at home. For me, it takes all the fun out of travelling when you want things to be the same. Whereas if we approach travelling with curiosity combined with flexibility and the intent to try new things, we often have a great time and learn new things along the way.
At Christmas time, when Aunt Mary insists you eat her cake, she is bestowing her worldview that doing so will bring you (and her) joy. She doesn’t factor in that you’ve never liked cake or have a stomach so full that you could explode – she likes cake and because of that, believes you will too. When Mum does her deep worry frown while asking you about your life decisions, she is actually expressing her fear (perhaps experienced by you as criticism) about you doing things outside of her comfort zone. And when your young teenage cousin seems anxious and doesn’t say a word all day (which can be kind of awkward for everyone), it’s probably a result of her feeling like she has entered the twilight zone because her worldview is so far removed from that of everyone else reminiscing and playing backyard cricket.
A change of mindset
With that in mind, how different would your Christmas be if instead of thinking that family members were trying to upset you, they were merely expressing their worldview which perhaps limits their understanding of how to be in the world WITH you? Perhaps this even extends to the idea that they may want to connect with you but just don’t know how to in a way that feels good from the perspective of your worldview.
From what I’ve heard from patients and learned from my many years as a psychologist, it’s pretty clear that some of the happiest times in our life are when we feel really well connected to others who are meaningful to us. Conversely, some of the least happy times are when we feel disconnected from meaningful others – misunderstood, unable to understand and maybe even alone.
Strategies for a better Christmas
My best suggestion for a better Christmas is to try to build connection.
Bearing in mind that we all have our own individual micro-cultures that support our unique worldview, a great place to start fresh this year is to approach the family Christmas from a place of curiosity and intrigue – perhaps think about engaging with people you have traditionally not enjoyed being with in the character of someone trying to solve a mystery, and remember to always consider the other person’s world view in when you are interpreting their answers.
Practical tips to engage and connect
- Ask open questions. This will not only get the other person talking, but also likely to help you get a better understanding of the other person’s world views. Open questions usually start with how, what, why and when and involve the other person answering with more than a few words as opposed to closed questions that start with words like ‘Did’ that tend to get one word answers such as ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.
- Practise reflective listening. This involves paraphrasing or repeating back what the other person says in your own words. You don’t have to agree with what they said, just reflect back to confirm that you understood what they said, then maybe follow it up with a quick prompt such as, ‘How so?’ to keep them engaged. This is a powerful technique that can result in the other person feeling truly heard and understood, therefor building a connection.
- Get deeper than the surface. While you can stay with the small chit chat options about the weather and sport, doing so rarely ends with any kind of true connection. If you really want to try something different this year, move into collecting information that builds up your understanding about that person. It can’t be super-shallow but it also can’t be so personal that the other person isn’t comfortable sharing it with you and also with other family members you want to connect with. For example, if cousin Jane shares that she has plans to travel, after listening to her and the conversation hits a lull, you can introduce your family friend John who has recently returned from his travels and re-stoke the discussion.
- Try to recall topics that family members enjoy talking about from previous conversations, and ask them about them.
- Have a few stories or topics on hand that you may offer as entertainment and/ or connecting information. People enjoy humour and interest that they related to. Of course, be careful about anecdotes that might involve other members of the family – while you might see the memory as funny and harmless, the day that cousin Sue feel out of the boat in the river might be a point of embarrassment, humiliation or even anger for others.
- Redirect. Sometimes asking open ended questions set people off on a ranting monologue that you might think is becoming unhelpful. Stay calm, don’t buy in to whatever tangent they have taken and try to gently redirect them back to more interesting and positive topics.
We hope this article provides you with a useful way to enjoy a better Christmas and perhaps even reconnect with family and friends that you miss having as part of your world. However, if you would like some last minute assistance – either by way of more practical strategies to make the festive season less stressful or to give you some support with some specific issues you are managing, please make contact with the friendly staff at Revive Health and Happiness now, we have appointments available right up until Saturday 23 December.