'Tis The Season!
As we are in full swing into the Holiday season, it is important for us to remember that the holidays can bring out the best, and the worst, in ourselves and others. Our experience of the holiday can be vastly different from how the media portrays the holiday season – usually a delightful experience when family and loved ones gather around a large, perfectly decorated dining room table, in a perfectly decorated home, with the lights dimmed, and the fireplace roaring. This is an attractive image unless, of course, you live in an apartment with a dining room table that fits four at best; had an abusive relationship with your mother/father/grandparents/siblings/extended family; have a family member or friend that is struggling in the throes of addiction; or would prefer to go out to eat for a holiday dinner that someone else prepared for you.
Because of conflicts like this, coming together with family and friends at the holidays can bring up all sorts of troubling thoughts and painful emotions related to gifting, food, personal appearance, budgets, travel, living arrangements, family dynamics, and a host of other issues.
6 Practices for a Peaceful Holiday Season
There are six core processes within Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to help folks create psychological flexibility around the holidays, meaning the freedom to choose our own actions regardless of what our mind is telling us, the emotions that show up for us, or the bodily sensations that arise in the presence of holiday activities. Below you will find the definition of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’s six core processes, along with an example of how you can practice the skill in real time this Holiday season.
1. Mindfulness: the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally.
Holiday Mindfulness ACTivity: imagine that you are sitting at a Holiday dinner joined by a very difficult & noxious family member or friend. The skill of mindfulness allows you to simply notice and pay attention, on purpose, without harsh judgment, of all the thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that arise when listening to this person speak. Perhaps say silently to yourself “I am noticing tension in my forehead and jaws; I am having the thought that ‘I can’t stand this person’; Oh, there is the feeling of anger.” While noticing all of these negative/painful internal stimuli, see if you can also enjoy the taste of food that you are eating.
2. Values: activities that give our lives meaning. Values are not goals in that we never “accomplish” a value. Instead, values are like a compass–they help us make choices based on the directions in which we want our lives to go.
Holiday Values ACTivity: if sharing meals and exchanging gifts with family and friends is
important and meaningful to you, let this value guide your behavior, especially in the presence of difficult external stimuli, such as an especially adversarial family member or friend, and/or in the presence of difficult internal stimuli such as thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. For example, if you find yourself growing frustrated while your loved one opens the present you gifted them and does not seem particularly impressed, and perhaps even obnoxiously unhappy, take a mindful moment to pause, check in, breathe, and remember the WHY factor of this whole experience – because sharing gifts with loved ones is important to you, even if the outcome is less than satisfactory. Remember it is the process that we have control over, not the outcome.
3. Committed Action: a step-by-step process of acting to create a life of integrity, true to one's deepest wishes and longings. Commitment involves both persistence and change— whichever is called for to live in alignment with one's values in specific contexts. Commitment also includes engaging in a range of behaviors.
Holiday Committed Action ACTivity: while it may be very important to you to be in the here-and-now as you engage in a values-based activity such as cooking a large meal for friends and family to celebrate the holiday season, you may also find yourself feeling run down and exhausted during the process. Perhaps another value that you engender is the value of self-care. A committed action in line with this value may look like allowing yourself to take a break. This can look like: taking a walk outside, resting or napping, connecting with a loved one on the phone, taking a shower/bath, and so on and so forth. These committed actions are not designed to avoid or escape the task at hand, but rather, to rejuvenate and restore energy, purpose, and vitality to continue to engage in your committed actions in line with your values.
4. Self-as-Context: learning to see your thoughts and narratives of yourself as separate from your actions. By doing so, people can make space for their thoughts and feelings by simply observing them, rather than being entangled with them.
Holiday Self-as-Context ACTivity: while you are wrapping gifts, notice your thoughts. Notice where they are around/inside/above/below you, notice if they are pictures, sounds, or a movie playing along in your mind. Bring your attention to the fact that your thoughts are ‘over there’ and you are the one who is observing them. Now, bring your attention to how you are sitting, noticing what you can see, smell, taste, and hear. At each of those points, bring your attention to the fact that you are noticing (e.g., notice how you are sitting, and as you do, be aware that you are noticing).
5. Cognitive Defusion: Defusion is about changing our relationship to our thoughts by observing them rather than engaging them. It is when you allow thoughts to come and go without being overwhelmed by them. According to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, it's not the thoughts that are the problem; it's what you do with them.
Holiday Cognitive Defusion ACTivity: When you notice you’ve been hooked by a thought, such as “That thing I said was so stupid at the dinner table,” unhook by taking a step back from the thought and say or think to yourself:
“I’m having the thought that what I said was stupid.”
Take another step back and think to yourself:
I’m noticing that I’m having a thought that what I said was stupid.”
Take an even further step back by thinking to yourself:
“Oop, there goes my mind again with the “I’m so stupid” story. Thanks Mind!”
6. Acceptance: With this process, ACT is referring to internal psychological experience such as emotions, sensations, thoughts, urges, flashbacks, and other private events. Acceptance, in this regard, involves a willingness to notice and have these experiences without any attempt to control them, lessen them, move away from them, or distract from them.
Holiday Acceptance Activity: if you find yourself ridden with grief over the loss of a loved one, a friend, or loss of a job, loss of a relationship, loss of status, or really feeling the loss of something/someone that is of great importance to you during this Holiday season, acceptance embodies a particular stance one can take when experiencing psychological pain. This is a stance of openness to experience this grief process without needlessly trying to alter in some form. This stance invites an essence of self-compassion towards ourselves because we tend to hurt when we care. This can look and sound like “Ouch, this grief is so painful right now. I know that I am not alone in this pain, and that others are suffering as well. Now, with a gentle soothing touch of your own hands over your heart, silently saying to yourself ‘May I be kind to myself in this moment of suffering.”
Enjoy The Holidays!
My hope is that you can practice and use these important components of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy this Holiday season in effort to be fully present with what you are doing and who you are doing it with, be able to access the “sweet spots” of this holiday season even in the presence of difficult external and internal stimuli, and to be able to show up and behave in way aligned with your values.
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*Peace, Love, & Fierce Acceptance*
Dr. Amanda Aster-McKenna, Psy.D.
NJ Licensed Psychologist #5888, Private Practice, Montclair, NJ
Adjunct Professor, Kean University, Department of Advanced Studies in Psychology
Manager, New York City Chapter of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science
Board Member, Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris