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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Psychologist's Guide to Making the Most of the Holiday Season

The Winter holidays are upon us once again, bringing an opportunity to take time out to celebrate with family and friends. Department stores are filled with glittery, silvery, wintery decorations and the fashionable, trendy spanking new merchandise for sale. Not to mention the beautiful candleholders, ornamental pumpkins and fall leaves, and colorful table runners and napkins that provide a backdrop for the feasting. This is a time of national celebration and family togetherness. Yet amidst all this celebrating, there is also the potential for psychological stress and hidden pitfalls. It is important to be mindful of these so that our thoughts and actions during the holidays do not lead to distress or regret. Below are some tips I have learned from my work as a clinical psychologist in private practice in Mill Valley, CA.

1) Celebrate Joyfully, But Don't Go Overboard

Moderation in all things is the key to enjoying the celebration but not using it as an opportunity to abandon sound judgment and healthy practices. This is a special time, with great food, so eat something special or taste many favorite foods, but do some anticipatory planning and think about your choices and food goals before you get into the tempting situation. Once you're standing next to the food table, its much harder to resist temptation if you haven't mentally prepared yourself. Practice positive self-talk, reminding yourself of the importance of making healthy choices and your ability to stick with your food plan. Tell yourself its ok to enjoy a reasonable amount of good food without feeling guilty or ashamed. Both avoiding excessive eating and enjoying the food you do eat are part of healthy, mindful self-care.

(2) Shop Mindfully

The after-Christmas sales are notorious for splendiferous selections, bargain-hunting, chaos and crowds. In all of this frenetic activity, its easy to get carried away and exceed your budget, potentially leading to debt that will take the next year to pay off. Advertisers and stores know how to pull the emotional strings to get the pursestrings to open. They display idealized images of snow, warm and cosy firesides and family fun and togetherness. In reality, many families are a mixed bag emotionally, and the mobility of our society may result in your living far from family. Some of you may be single or recovering from a recent loss or breakup. Some may be working through most of the holiday season for economic reasons or money for gifts may be scarce this year. Its important to see your own life for what it is without comparing it to a commercially-created idea of how things should be. If your holiday celebration wouldn't meet Martha Stewart's standards, it does't mean that you are a failure. Don't buy things you don't need or too many gifts because you're trying to create a fantasy world. Make the most of the life you have, even if it doesn't contain Juicy or Tory Birch. Buy a few special things and gifts you can afford and that are thoughtfully chosen based on the person's interests or personality. Write a special card to convey loving sentiments. Celebrate in a way that expresses your uniqueness and your family's values. And go home with some cash to spare.

(3) Balance Self-Care with Giving to Others

The holiday season is a time for parties and celebration, enjoying the arts or the outdoors, sending cards to long-lost relatives, cooking, entertaining, worshiping and volunteering. These are all potentially enriching and energizing activities that create a sense of togetherness and community. That is, if you choose your commitments wisely and keep in mind the need to balance self-care with giving to others. Often family obligations rear their heads, or couples feel torn between demands of the two sets of parents. Sometimes extended family members want you to visit or spend all your time with them. Remember you always have a choice about how you spend your time. If you enjoy the company of family, family visits can be a lot of fun. It can be valuable for children to feel connected to older relatives and for parents to be respected and appreciated for what they have given. However, if the relationships are strained or psychologically unhealthy, family togetherness can lead to resentment and feelings of being burdened rather than healthy connection. Remember, it is not necessarily the amount of time spent, but the quality of time that counts. It is also important to feel free to express what you feel and be yourself, rather than playing some role to please others. And it is important to leave some time for relaxing, taking stock, setting goals, and getting organized for the next year. So connect with others this holiday season but also connect with yourself.

(4) Avoid the Comparison Trap

Another common holiday pitfall results from a wandering and judging mind. In mindfulness terms, we sometimes refer to this as "big deal mind." This happens when your mind makes a big deal over some goal or outcome and uses this as an assessment of your ultimate success or worth as a human being. Your mind then starts comparing your life to those of other people with more money, bigger houses, or larger families and decides that you fall short. Single people may wish they were married. Married people may wish their relationships were happier. Almost everybody wishes they were more successful. People start feeling unworthy because their holiday celebration doesn't measure up or because they don't have a big friendship network, or because they're not a master chef and entertainer or because they're alone. The holidays are therefore a great time to develop a mindful attitude. Try to observe your thoughts as they wander, withholding judgment, and bringing your attention back to your immediate present and sensory experience. Be aware of your wishes and wants, but don't let feelings of inferiority determine your actions. Think about your values and the things in life that are most important to you. Use these values to guide your decisions and efforts, while trying to let go of focusing on the outcome. Efforts are controllable while outcomes may not be. Try to develop compassion for yourself and a feeling of connection with all living things, rather than competition. We are all part of a larger universe and if we seek to contribute rather than compete and compare, we can make an important difference to our world. And that is the real spirit of the holidays!

To find out more about my clinical practice or contact me, please visit my website at I am also available for speaking, blogging, writing, or consulting engagements. Have a happy Thanksgiving. Melanie A Greenberg, Ph.D.
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