Getting together with family, especially during the holidays, can cause a lot of stress and anxiety—even if it’s all love. In this week’s The Soul of Therapy, psychologist Kevin Anderson, PhD, gives us the tools to cope.
Question: We will be traveling across the country to spend Christmas with my parents, my brother, and his wife. I dread these family gatherings! It’s not that there’s some terrible dysfunction, just a lot of disjointed people pretending to be enjoying each other. My parents never seem to get past shallow chit-chat. Last year, a half hour of Christmas dinner was spent on how difficult it is to find things at the grocery since the store was rearranged. Then there was a ten-minute discussion about the cheapest place to buy evaporated milk! My brother and sister-in-law are all about sharing their own and their children’s accomplishments. How can I maintain any spiritual sense of the season when my own family can’t seem to connect on any deeper level?
Kevin Anderson: Your question is being asked by millions of people at this time of year! For many, family holiday gatherings seem closer to visiting a dentist than a retreat center. I suggest to my patients that they consider such family gatherings to be opportunities for advanced mindfulness training. What do I mean? We know mindfulness is awareness of the present moment without judgment, but in practice, I think we prefer awareness of the pleasant moment. And we quickly move into judgment when the present moment isn’t pleasant.
In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the dodo bird declares after a race that “EVERBODY has won, and all must have prizes.” For family holiday gatherings, I’d tweak that to “EVERBODY is flawed, and all must have compassion.” Every parent, every daughter, every son, every aunt, every uncle, every family is flawed. That’s the world we live in. Parker Palmer calls it the tragic gap between the way the world is and the way we imagine it could be.
How does mindfulness lead to compassion for the people in our inner circle who often leave us feeling hurt, empty, or disappointed? When we stay present to what is happening at a family gathering and notice anger, irritation, or emptiness arising in ourselves in response, we can go to our breath as a way of remembering our connection to nonjudgment and compassion. When we do this, we still may not enjoy the gathering, but we at least get a good spiritual workout!
My “EVERBODY is flawed, and all must have compassion” reworking of the dodo bird’s declaration begins, of course, with ourselves. When we are really struggling to stay present to a difficult family dynamic, when we are moving into angry or judging thoughts, we can stay present to our distress and surround it with nonjudgment: This family’s ways are upsetting to me. I accept my upset. I surround myself and this whole group of good and wounded people with nonjudgmental compassion.
We don’t want to have to do loving-kindness meditation at family parties, but it may be one of our best options. Thanks for your question and a very merry mindful holiday season to you!
Is there a voice in your head telling you that you’re not good enough? Read Kevin’s advice on how to tackle self-doubt and low self-esteem.
The Soul of Therapy continues below.
Q: After too long thinking about it, I’ve decided to go into therapy to work on some painful things I still carry from my early life and some failed relationships. When I go online and search therapists in my city it’s like trying to choose from a hundred brands of paper towel at the store. Can you give me some pointers about choosing a therapist?
Kevin Anderson: I’m assuming you’ve not been able to get a good recommendation from a trusted friend, pastor, or healthcare provider. The very first class I took in my training as a psychologist covered three factors people tune into when deciding on a therapist: 1) likability, 2) trustworthiness, and 3) expertness. Pretty simple stuff, but hard to assess before you’ve even met someone. I’d encourage you to pick several therapists you feel somewhat drawn to from their online presences and call them. You can winnow down the list of candidates if you decide you’d like to talk more with a man or woman or someone within a particular age range.
The first phone call can give you a lot of information. Do you feel the person is willing to take time, even ten minutes, to focus on you and to listen to your situation? Is their tone of voice or manner of conversing one that you could spend hours with? Is there a willingness to discuss how they approach therapy? If it matters to you, whether the therapist has a spiritual perspective compatible with yours—is the therapist willing to answer questions about that?
When you’ve had a meeting or two with someone, trust your gut. The most active healing ingredient in psychotherapy or counseling is the therapist-client relationship. Do you feel drawn to step further into this relationship? Or are there things that make you want to move on and look for another therapist? It’s not unusual to try several people before you find a good fit or to work with a couple of therapists in succession. What you get when you visit a therapist is the summation of who that person has become in their training, practice, and life. Each therapist, therefore, will have something different to offer and no one will have everything.
Send your questions to [email protected]. Questions may be edited for clarity or length. Dr. Anderson cannot respond to all letters. Sending a letter, whether answered in this column or not, does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Information in this column is for general psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for assessment and care provided in person by a medical or mental health professional.
Check out Kevin’s last column for a discussion on prayer, or dive into his six-part series on spirituality and mental health: