I originally wrote the article below for the Mountain Mirror. http://www.mountainmirror.com/
When we read the Declaration of Independence we are told we live in a land where people have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But as we approach the holidays, we are aware this season is sometimes not very life-giving, and instead of liberty we feel burdened by a long list of things to do, and happiness ends up being quite elusive. So how do we overcome the frenetic pace of the season and experience all things merry and bright? I believe the practice of setting boundaries, self-care, and mindfulness will help us manage our stress and keep us full of life, liberty, and happiness.
I am a licensed marriage and family therapist and in my work as a counselor I often remind people of the importance of setting boundaries. Setting boundaries is learning how to cultivate the practice of saying no to those tasks that do not bring life and light to our soul, or that we can’t realistically do this year because of time constraints. In previous seasons of my life, I have enjoyed sending out Christmas cards to friends and family, but currently my life is so chock-full that I don’t have the time to do this. Part of setting boundaries also involves discarding the guilt and remembering life is to be lived and so we can’t do it all. Striving to be perfect will only leave us sick or exhausted. We also have to relinquish worry about how others will view us and know that embracing the joy of the holidays is more important. If this is your first holiday without a loved one who has died, if you have young children or aging parents with health concerns, or if you are experiencing stress in your work or personal life, it is even more imperative to slow down your pace and learn how to say no. For those of you who are hosting your family for a holiday meal this year, instead of stressing about the food prep required for a traditional feast, why not have every family coming bring a different soup or bring a pot-luck item? Consider skipping a tree or baking cookies, if the thought of doing so elicits anxiety. If there is no time to buy presents, donate to a charity in honor of your loved ones or skip presents altogether. When we are gentle with ourselves, we will ensure that we keep the light of this season shining in our heart.
During this time of year we have a laundry list of things we “should” do. In this “most wonderful time of the year” we are sometimes overwhelmed by the music, parties, decorations, gifts, religious services, extended family gatherings, and many other commitments. As we burn the candle at both ends, we are often left with nothing to give to others. I know that if I don’t find ways to care for myself, I am not able to care for others and I don’t feel fully alive. I also can become resentful, anxious, and melancholy when my focus is on just making it through the season. Often during the holidays, we abandon exercise, sleep, and treasured hobbies. Even if it is only 30 minutes a day, I encourage you to keep making space for you! Self-care is the way we feed and nurture our mind, body, and spirit and is the practice of choosing activities that will restore us and fill our cup. So, how do you fill up your cup? Maybe your self-care practice is taking a walk to look at the holiday lights or maybe it is journaling, prayer, yoga, reading, dancing, talking to a friend, or enjoying a cup of hot tea. I have a practice of putting my self-care time on the calendar, because otherwise it may not happen. The Quaker theologian and author, Parker Palmer, says, “Self-care is never a selfish act-it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others.” Taking time for ourselves helps us to thrive in life so we can offer the best version of our self to the world. Not practicing self-care can eventually lead to resentment and our bitter and martyr-like behavior, ultimately serves no one, and robs us of this joyous season. To avoid becoming a Grinch, we need to tune into our own needs during the holidays. We may even find that when we practice self-care, we become kinder and more generous to others, which is definitely in keeping with the holiday spirit.
Mindfulness has become quite the buzz word in our modern-day vernacular, but what does it mean? John Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” When I practice mindfulness, I am trying to tune into the present, so that I have gratitude for the moment I am experiencing. My husband and I just brought home a rescue kitten a week ago. I practice mindfulness through experiencing the joy of our new kitten as she purrs, plays, and sits in my lap. During the holidays this can mean that we mindfully show up for life as we sing seasonal religious hymns, as we shop for gifts for loved ones, as we drink egg nog, as we decorate our trees, as we watch children open presents, as we cook and eat holiday meals, and as we drive in busy mall parking lots! Another way to practice mindfulness is to be aware of the feelings we have during this season. The holidays can be painful, if we have recently experienced a divorce, death, or another form of grief. It is important to make space for feelings and to allow for whatever emotions surface for us, rather than try to get rid of them. Mindful living also invites us to offer kindness to those people in our lives who are experiencing the holiday blues. We might offer others a hug, a prayer, a kind word, or a phone call; but whatever we do it is important to reach out to folks who are going through a difficult season.
So how does doing only the holiday activities that we feel passionate about, taking time out for ourselves, and savoring all the beautiful moments of the holiday sound to you? Of course, even when we try to set boundaries, practice self-care, and live mindfully during the holidays, this season will likely still provide moments of anxiety. But my hope is to remind us to find as much life, liberty, and happiness as possible, and this can be accomplished through realizing we can’t do it all, taking care of ourselves, and mindfully tuning into the present moment. If we neglect to utilize these tools, instead of Grandma getting run over by a reindeer, we will be the ones who will at least metaphorically be run over by the holidays. Instead, let’s pursue a holiday filled with life, liberty, and happiness.
Enjoy this season,