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Many of us face the holidays with a slight sense of foreboding, after all, time with the family is supposed to be restful and relaxing, or fun and friendly. 

We live under the false expectation of it being a loving, harmonious time. Interesting that the busiest times for most psychologists and therapists follow Christmas, Easter and the summer holidays! Why is this?

Families are a perfect arena for interpersonal difficulties, for stress and anxiety to overcome us. Here are some thoughts about how these situations occur and how to cope with them a little better.

Most people when socialising tend to be on their best behaviour, as the saying goes, they mind their p’s and q’s. So why is it often so different when socialising with your family? Within family relationships there is a combination of factors that can make for a more difficult experience. Firstly, we have existing relationships of long standing which means that our interpersonal communication is loaded with history, lots of it. 

It is difficult to sometimes hear exactly what the other family member has just said, and all too easy to imbue it with what they said five years ago one Christmas morning or what they’ve been saying frequently over the years.  

Secondly, there is familiarity, we don’t have to mind our p’s and q’s any longer with family members, we can say it how it is. This familiarity not only allows us a positive familial intimacy but also means everyone knows exactly which buttons to press to get you really going.

So here are some helpful tips on what to watch out for and how to avoid rising to the bait and keeping your stress and anxiety down. 

Tip 1 -  Beware of black and white thinking

Black and white thinking is characterised by absolute thinking, words like 'should', 'have to', 'must', 'mustn’t' and 'can’t'.

Let's look at a couple of examples of this type of thinking.

Example 1: 'Comments from my wife'

So you may think that your wife absolutely shouldn’t have just said what she did ... BUT she did say it ... and any amount of frustration, anger, stress that she has said it is not going to be reduced by telling yourself that she ‘absolutely should not have done’. 

Accept that she has, breathe deeply and let it go. If you really think it was inappropriate, say so gently, and move on. Telling yourself that this absolutely should not have happened (when it has) ... will drive you nuts!!

Example 2: 'My son's lazy'

Or you believe that your son should want to have a walk with you after lunch on Sunday (after giving birth to him and looking after him for 16 years!). He doesn’t, he knows you well enough to say so, hopefully he loves you well enough not to think it's going to hurt. Most of all, he’s an autonomous adolescent human being and however much you WANT him to come for that walk ... it ain’t going to happily happen!!

Tip 2 – Don’t create an awful out of a bad

Another area in which we get really stuck with the family is ‘awfulising’ the situation. Remember, it may not be great, it may be far from ideal, it may be really difficult BUT telling yourself something is AWFUL has an enormously negative impact on us and on our mood. 

Think of it like this. If difficult to bad to really bad is a spectrum that runs from 0 – 99.9%, AWFUL starts at 100% to infinity. 

However difficult a family situation is, AWFUL is when the gas mains explode, the house is riven apart and no-one, but no-one survives the day! 

So call it what is it ... but try to avoid the ‘AWFUL’ word.

Tip 3 – Remember, you can bear it!

A final thought ... that old cognitive monkey which makes a difficult situation about ten times more difficult to cope with is that old familiar thought - 'I can’t bear this anymore!' 

Psychologists call it 'low frustration tolerance'. It’s a common little thought that makes a difficult situation and a trying time about 50% worse!

Remember, it may be difficult to cope with, you may wish you didn’t have to cope with it BUT, however difficult it is, you ARE coping with it and in a little while ... or at most, in a few days, you will have COPED with it and it’ll all be behind you.  

About the author

Robin is the co-founder of Companion Apps and is a psychologist with an expertise in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

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