For most of us this time of year brings us closer than usual to our family. While the holidays can be a time of celebration, and coming together, being together can also provoke feelings of anxiety for those of us whose families don’t quite live up to our hopes and expectations.
Families are the tribe from which we come from, and the desire to be with family and stay connected is deeply compelling. The other truth is that our relationships are often fraught with unresolved issues that may carry simmering tension and ambivalence. The holidays can exacerbate this built-in tension.
There are ways in which we can satisfy our need to connect and also take care of ourselves in the process. Family time cannot always be controlled or curated into a meaningful or joyful experience. Sometimes not even a peaceful one. There are always different agendas and personalities at play, knowing and respecting your limits can be critical to maintaining emotional balance. This may mean setting a boundary or stepping away if you find yourself feeling triggered.
Being Mindful is the ability to be in the present moment, without judging your experience. Mindfulness is a practice of simply observing your thoughts, feelings and sensations. It can help to free us from over-identifying with emotional reactions. Mindfulness can help you stay grounded and create space from thoughts and emotions that arise, that would otherwise derail you.
Most of us cannot be our full authentic selves in the family context. If we reduce our expectations and separate our desire for acceptance and closeness from what is actually present, we may suffer less. If we accept the inherent limitations of being with our families, we don’t have to superimpose and experience disappointment when our family doesn’t live up to our fantasy.
You cannot find peace by avoiding life.
We might consider that at the core of therapy is the idea of self-awareness. At times of vulnerability – whether that be heartbreak, stress at home or work or generally feeling unable to cope we may find ourselves suffering from unbearable feelings and want to block these out. However, avoiding the sensations we feel can increase our vulnerability to being overwhelmed by them.
Becoming aware of the ebb and flow of emotions within our bodies can put us in touch with our inner world. In noticing our feelings of anger, irritation, nervousness or desperation we become able to shift our perspective and open up new options other than our automatic, habitual reactions. Mindfulness puts us in touch with the transitory nature of our feelings and perceptions. When we pay focused attention to our bodily sensations we can recognise that our emotions are not set in stone and hopefully increase control of them.
The paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, observation of mothers and children focused amongst other things on how the mothers held their babies. He proposed that these physical interactions lay the groundwork for a baby’s sense of self, and with that their capacity for self-regulation. ‘The ability to feel the body as the place where the psyche lives.’ In the majority of cases Winicott believed that mothers were able to be ‘good enough’, but in cases where the mother cannot meet her babies needs and impulses ‘the baby learns to become the mother’s idea of what the baby is’. Children who lack physical attunement are vulnerable to shutting down the direct feedback from their bodies.
As adults in order to learn how to become available to our bodies feedback we need to change how we deal with difficult feelings and increase our awareness of inner experiences. Allowing our minds to focus on sensations and notice how in contrast to feelings that might feel overwhelming our physical sensations are transient and respond to slight shifts in bodies, such as how we hold ourselves, our breathing and even our thinking.
The next step might be to label our physical sensations. Practising mindfulness calms down our sympathetic nervous system, so we are less likely to be thrown into a flight or flight response. Learning to observe and tolerate what we are feeling in the moment, is a prerequisite for safely being able to revisit the past. It is possible to tolerate a great deal of discomfort if we are able to remain conscious that our bodies’ reactions are constantly shifting. Mindfulness has been shown to have a positive effect on a number of psychosomatic and psychological issues. It has also been shown to activate the brain regions involved in emotional regulation and lead to changes in the regions related to body awareness and fear.