Due to popular demand, I am happy to share once again this letter and answer as we approach Thanksgiving.
It’s fall and the holidays are coming and that makes me nervous. Every year I go through this stress. No matter who I read or talk to, it doesn’t help. This year, I’m even more upset because my folks have planned a family reunion on Thanksgiving. Relatives I don’t remember meeting are coming. My mom loves to organize everything. Yesterday I got a letter listing my room assignment and suggestions about what to wear. I cried for an hour and then decided to write you and see if there was anything you could help me figure out. I’m twenty-four and single. I hate family gatherings because I’ll get those questions about who I’m dating and what I’m doing. I’m an adult and usually make my own decisions, but right now, I feel five. I’m tempted to call and say I’m not coming but my mother will go ballistic and I’ll never hear the end of it. My dad who never says anything will just pout. What should I do: Are there other choices here?
Wow, a silent-type, passive dad and an organized, controlling mom. That’s a lot to deal with and still manage to feel heard and intact. No wonder you feel five! That family dynamic would stress anyone out. So please sit down, close your eyes and take a deep breath. There! Without clarity there can be no serenity. But before you can get clear, you must become calm enough for blood to flow to your brain, not just your heart.
Now, let’s see. You mentioned you get stressed with the approach of every holiday season. And that no matter what you’ve tried to do, you haven’t been able to overcome or prevent the return of that anxiety. That’s the first issue.
Secondly, to compound that stress, your folks are having what sounds like a “must attend” event replete with a lot of unknowns. Well, that’s enough to get any normal, healthy person worked up. So dealing with the event is the second issue. And the third issue? Dealing with the first two. For in the midst of calendar events, you’re dealing with a family dynamic that while not uncommon is loaded with boundary and control issues that can’t be sorted out and resolved instantly. We must, however, acknowledge them as they color everything you’re being asked to deal with right now.
You are not alone. The stress that accompanies the holidays afflicts millions of people. But remember, no one or no thing can make you feel angry or stressed. Only you can choose to let something upset you. What generally complicates that basic premise, however, is the reality of the layers and layers of memories and leftover, half-forgotten feelings that come from slights, hurts and disappointments accrued over the years. They tend to pile up into one big irrational mess. It takes a lot of time, effort and thought to separate out old, familiar and often painful incidents from the reality of the present moment. Of course, some guidance from a professional would help. But for the moment, while you’re in crisis mode, let’s try to find some reason and clarity in the midst of your anxiety and fear. For whenever we feel irrationally reluctant to proceed about anything, fear is usually present and accounted for in the mix. Fear of the unknown, fear of new pain or disappointment, fear of embarrassment or unwanted attention, even fear of unfair demands or expectations. In this situation, it would be understandable for many or all of those to be in the muddle.
You could try making a list of every imagined scenario that concerns you about the holidays as well as the event. Once you’ve written that out, try sorting out and attaching the range of emotions each of those images summons. This is an exercise I use with my private clients and it is often very helpful in putting names and faces to unknown fears and stresses. You might discover that a lot of the emotions called forth by the thought of going through the holidays and the event are attached to childhood and old memories. And while they’re important, special and real, they are just that. Old. Done. Not of the present. While they may have been unfair or regrettable, they are not changeable or fixable. But how you take care of yourself and honor and respect yourself now is yours to create. Because at the heart of the pain is your Inner Bottom Line and the choices you’re free to make as an adult about how you deserve to be perceived and treated. Especially by yourself. You don’t have to relive those old hurts over and over. You can gently put them away in a safe and special place where they’ll be respected and acknowledged but no longer permitted to participate in your present life.
Now, to the event. Of course, there are choices. You could decline attending. But if you didn’t go, would the reaction that choice might invite end up being more stressful and painful than attending on your own terms? And in reality, if you didn’t attend, who and what would you be avoiding? Your family and the unknown moments to come? Yourself and your present reality? Since your mother hasn’t requested your help with the planning or that you entertain, perform or speak, at least you won’t have to deal with those added stresses! And since she seems to have all the details under control, you just need to show up, be pleasant, observe, and maybe even participate. You might meet someone interesting to talk to and end up having a good time. There’s no way to know that until the moment happens. As for the questions? You don’t have to explain, defend or share private details of your life with anyone. You can always defer answering directly by simply stating politely that you appreciate their interest and that you’re quite pleased with your life for the moment. Period. Then ask them something about themselves. People love attention and a chance to talk about themselves.
I’ll share a little secret with you I discovered quite by accident a few years ago when I had to attend a lot of big bashes in Hollywood. Since I don’t like small talk, I’ve always disliked cocktail parties. I would generally feel uncomfortable, often bored, and sometimes even insecure surrounded by a room full of famous faces. One night, I decided to do what I felt comfortable doing to “get through the evening” without appearing rude. I planted myself comfortably in a chair in the corner of the room with a glass of wine and just sat back, watched and listened. And the most amazing thing happened. After about fifteen minutes, stranger after stranger came over to introduce themselves. One man sat down and began a fascinating conversation that commenced a long-lasting friendship. Putting our interest and curiosity into learning about others rather than focusing on what we’re going to say or do can change the entire dynamic of an experience. And shift the focus off of what’s in it for us to what can we discover or learn from the world and unknown people around us.
Only you can decide what you can handle and what risks you’re willing to take right now. Whatever you choose, remember to first respect and honor that which is best for you. Then move out into the world with curiosity and openness. You never know what you might find. Good luck and try to enjoy each moment. It’s all we ever really have.
You can submit your questions or book private phone sessions with Olive at theinnerbottomline.com, explore her new site at whatskeepingyouawakeatnight.com, or call into her blogtalkradio.com show, “The Inner Bottom Line,” at 661-449-1425 with your questions. All letters and calls can be anonymous and confidential.
Kindle and audio versions along with the hard cover of Olive’s book, The Nude Ethicist: A Simple Path to The Good Life, are now available on amazon.com.