The holidays are often the time of year where family comes together. Distant and close relatives show up, and bring forth family memories; not all of which are positive. There are expectations towards yourself and others. Things you wish to happen, and things you would rather avoid this year. Difficult emotions bubble up that can overshadow the festivities, and, if you let them, turn what is supposed to be a happy memory into a stressful ordeal. 

There may be disappointment about not being given the right gift. Or disappointment about seeing that your gift has not been received as well as you hoped. Worse, you may feel forced to spend time with people that you would rather avoid, because they are overly critical, hold troubling political views, or have harmed you in the past. And you may also feel loss. People who have never missed a holiday are no longer there, and you become painfully aware of their absence.

How you deal with these complex emotions influences not just your holiday experience, but your overall well-being, and your relationship with the people closest to you. Your first instinct might be to disengage. To leave the table, wander around, or be overly focused on a football game (or any other distraction, really). And you may even begin judging yourself for disengaging, thereby only aggravating your inner conflict. But there is an alternative available, and it boils down to a simple formula. If you are struggling with stress – regardless which form it may take – follow the three steps of ON-A-holiday. 

The Surprisingly Effective ON-A-holiday formula

O = Observe

The first step of the formula is to observe. Not in a critical way, but in an unfiltered one.  Like a camera merely capturing the events unfolding in the present moment. What is there for you to perceive? Look outside of you and what happens around you. But also look inside, and observe what happens for you internally. What shows up in your body? What shows up in your mind? The first step is to merely observe without judgment. 

N = Note

The second step of the ON-A-holiday formula is about noting and describing what you observe. You don’t have to do it out loud (thought this would make for an interesting dinner conversation). Instead, note it mentally, just for yourself. Again, your task is to leave judgment out of the equation. Merely observe and note what you observe. Like a scientist on a new planet, gathering data. “There is irritation”. “There is Uncle Phil telling a scatological joke.” “There is Aunt Vivian criticizing my dress.” And so on. 

A = Allow 

The last step of the formula is to allow and even appreciate what you observed and noted. When your mind goes into a judgmental posture of “this shouldn’t happen” or “when is this going to end?!”, gently observe and note that as well. Allow yourself space to not just have pleasant, but also difficult experiences. Your judgmental mind may disagree and demand that the present be anything other than what it is. And it’s true: if a situation is truly unsafe, psychologically or physically, you may need to intervene and change the situation or to remove yourself from it. Even then, however, you can appreciate how observing and noting your emotion without judgment allows you to sense what is present so you can decide if you have to take steps. More often than not, however, you will gain a more general sense of safety and room to be yourself with a posture of mindful awareness and maybe even appreciation of what is difficult for you. You can learn that it is safe to be more fully you, with your history and its echoes into the current situation.

There is a lesson waiting for you to be learned inside emotions that are felt more fully and without needless judgmental defense. And if you think about it, even the parts that we find annoying about other people may come to be a cherished memory later on. When people pass away, after the tears and sadness, sometimes these annoying habits are part of what we remember. And we may even smile about it, because it made them them. Yes, Uncle George always found his way to your pantry and proudly and loudly declared exactly how many cans and boxes he’d found that were past their expiration dates, but his quirkiness was part of his unique humanity. Why smile lovingly only with the distance of time? 

Let’s remember this while we are alive, and acknowledge the importance of others and our moments together  – even if they also get on our nerves at times. Remember that you are on a holiday. Create that safe place to be yourself, by bringing these surprisingly effective skills of observing, noting, and allowing along on the ride of the continuous unfolding of now. Happy Holidays.