Are You Ready to Spend Time With Family This Holiday Season? Here’s the Ultimate Mindful Guide to Complicated Dynamics

Let's face it, no matter what holidays you celebrate, there are countless reasons we may be managing difficult emotions (and social situations). The good news is that our mindfulness practice is here to support us and help us make space for self-compassion and maybe even a bit of ease.

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During this holiday season, it’s expected throughout our culture to be merry, lighthearted, and tirelessly social—but the reality is that few of us can live up to these expectations all of the time. There are countless reasons we may be managing difficult emotions at this time of year—especially in the social situations that make up so many of our holiday traditions, no matter which holidays you celebrate. Tempers may flare. Tears may happen. It’s all understandable, if not comfortable. 

The good news is that mindfulness both lets us accept ourselves and our emotions as they ebb and flow, peak and plummet; our mindfulness practice can also help us to work with those emotions, giving us the inner space we need to care for ourselves and those around us.

First: Slow Down and Take Care of Yourself

One of the ways we tend to respond to the stress of this time of year is that instead of taking a break from our normal, busy lives, we fill our time with even more activity, more obligations, and more opportunities to encounter the edges of our capacity. We speed up as though, if we stay busy enough, we can outrun all the crazy. Part of self-care during the holidays is knowing when to slow down, and when to say no. This way, maybe you can actually enjoy this holiday season. 

Here are five self-care tips to help you slow down amid the bustle of familial and social events: 

  1. Pace yourself. Remember to simply pause a few times a day, tune in to your body and breathe in the moment. You may be thinking: breathe? That’s your advice. But research shows that many of us aren’t breathing fully. So, take a moment, breathe in fully so that your belly extends on the in-breath. Pausing also applies to your social engagements: See if you can pass up a few invitations this year. If you’re hosting, consider a holiday potluck as an opportunity for folks to share a meaningful recipe, allowing you to enjoy their company instead of stressing out over food preparation. 
  2. Emphasize kindness. Once you’ve mastered the art of the mindful breath, to give yourself a moment of pause, use that moment to remember to apply a light touch when it comes to relationships and subjects that are challenging for you. Hold the intention of wishing everyone well, (especially challenging people) even saying silently, I wish for this person to be happy. Instead of jumping on comments you disagree with or diving headfirst into an argument, do your best to look for opportunities to offer a genuine compliment or kind word, or get up from your seat and lend a hand with a task. 
  3. Savor your food. The holidays often mean too much sugar, alcohol, junk food, you name it, combined with missed workouts, late nights, and packed weekends. This festive combo can lead to feeling less than optimal in body and mind. Psychologist and mindfulness teacher Christopher Willard suggests tuning in to your body’s signals of hunger and thirst. When you’re hungry, make yourself a plate of food, put snacks in containers to eat out of, and slow down when you eat, which allows you to better experience the flavors and textures of your food—and make you less likely to overdo it. Remember that sometimes our bodies mistake thirst for hunger, so before you reach for another cookie, ask yourself: am I thirsty? (And, of course, if you find yourself on the other side of a late-night grazing session, be kind to yourself. Just acknowledging that we sometimes eat to soothe and celebrate is an act of compassion).
  4. Listen to your emotional needs. We always talk about celebrating and being with loved ones, but holidays can also be a tremendously anxious or painful time, for many reasons. You may want to have this holiday feel “normal” again, but maybe you can try to embrace the ways it’s changed. Even the difficult ways. And then see how you can recognize the activities or situations that intensify difficult emotions for you, and take steps to minimize them. This might mean skipping certain events or limiting your interactions with some people.
  5. Notice what brings joy. What are you grateful for, really? When you close your eyes and exhale long and deep, what comes to mind as something you’re grateful for? Whether you follow a faith tradition or just enjoy the festivities, take a few minutes each day to focus on what brings you gratitude. The more attention you give to what you appreciate, especially the small things, the more reasons for joy and gratitude you’ll notice everywhere—even long after the holidays have passed.

Keep These 3 Mindful Phrases in Your Pocket for Challenging Interactions

No matter how well prepared you are, family events and other social gatherings can put your skills to the test. As Google’s mindfulness mentor, Chade Meng-Tan, would say: If you think you’re mindful, go to a family reunion. When stress and tension flare up, Meng shares three attitudes you can cultivate to find some inner calm this holiday:

  1. Keep it Real: Acknowledge, This is hard. I can do my best, and I don’t have to be perfect. Even people with years of meditation practice still find themselves ruminating over fights with relatives, replaying past hurts in their minds, and trying not to get caught up in their reactions. Be gentle with yourself—these situations can be hard for everyone. 
  2. You’re Only Human: Look at everyone in the room, and no matter how difficult your relationship may be, just think to yourself, I wish for this person to be healthy, safe, and happy in life. This thought sets an intention and causes a warmth of heart and it goes a long way to reducing negativity and stress.
  3. This Life is Short: When you’re finding it deeply challenging and hard to be around someone, it helps to recall to yourself: If this person were to die tomorrow, how would I want to be present with them today? More than likely, you’d want to be generous with your time and your love, allowing any personal conflicts to take a backseat to compassion. We can begin to see a situation differently when we think about the fact that we all have a limited amount of time together in life.  

Try These 4 Ways to Keep Your Seat Around Loved Ones With Different Opinions Than You

For many of us, we’re facing the reality that members of our family or close community have made choices and voiced beliefs that we don’t agree with. If you’re in this kind of situation and struggling with feelings of grief, helplessness, worry, anger—or anything else—know that you’re not alone. Remember to be kind and gentle to yourself, even as you hold the boundaries that you need to hold. If you need to, explore these four suggestions to move toward peace and to make your way safely through the holidays:

1. Accept your feelings: Whether you feel the heat of frustration, or a hollow sadness or lack of certainty—or a jumble of emotions—know that your emotions are valid. Allow yourself to feel what you feel at any given moment, with a sense of self-compassion, and without judgment. 

2. Express your feelings: Just as important as accepting your feelings is expressing them in a way that is helpful to you, especially if you are feeling blocked in your ability to communicate effectively with people who have different opinions. Journaling, talking about the experience, scrapbooking, or dancing to a favorite song, for example, are helpful ways to process instead of allowing the feelings to stay stuck.

3. Reach out wisely: During this time, it is important to reach out in multiple ways. Find a balance between sitting with yourself, and being with others, but ultimately, reach out—don’t isolate. Importantly, ask yourself honestly whether you feel ready and prepared to have a holiday phone or Zoom call with the people who you’re choosing to not spend time with. Can this be an opportunity to cultivate a measure of reconciliation? Or is it likely to cause further pain and conflict to both parties?

4. Continue to take care of yourself and others: Navigating this emotionally difficult terrain may feel like scaling a mountain. It takes energy and can often feel draining. As much as possible during this tough time, continue to eat well, exercise, and maintain wellness practices.

Remember These 7 Ways to Work with the Grief of Loss During the Holidays 

As mindfulness teacher and author Elisha Goldstein explains, if you’ve lost someone recently, or even not too recently, the holidays can be a time of great sadness and grief. It’s a painful reminder of someone who’s no longer with us. So feelings of sadness may be here, or feelings of grief, anger, or guilt. 

While there is no one “right” way to grieve, to actually grieve is essential for our ability to employ our human capacity to find a renewed sense of meaning. Grief elicits resilience. The capacity to continue to hold a loved one in our heart/mind while still forging forward with purpose and direction. These seven tips will help you to move through the holiday grief with a sense of grace and resilience:

  1. Know that everyone is on their own clock with grief. “Grief is not a one-size-fits-all situation,” says Goldstein. Tune in to your heart and your mind and listen to what you need. Be especially kind and compassionate to yourself during this time. 
  2. Pay special attention when you’re enjoying something. See if you can notice when you’re enjoying the comedy of a show, connecting with someone you love, receiving a thoughtful gift, or the taste of your favorite seasonal dishes. Or, maybe, you just feel relief knowing that soon the holiday will be over. Pay attention to how these lighter moments feel in the body, perhaps saying to yourself, Hey, this is a good moment.
  3. Let others know you’re OK (or not OK). Some people may want to cheer you up or make you feel better, but even if they mean well, that may not be where you’re at right now. Goldstein reminds us that it’s fine to let others know that you’re OK with the emotions that are coming up for you. 
  4. Honor your limits. You don’t have to participate in everything, and it’s OK to take a break: Go for a walk, lie down, or go into another room and cry. These emotions are here, and you can let them come and go. Give yourself permission to acknowledge your limits and really take care of yourself.
  5. Create your own way to spend time with the person who has passed. Maybe that’s lighting a candle and talking about the person, or visiting a place where you feel their presence. Goldstein also suggests you could do something fun, like baking their favorite treat, or you might choose to spend quiet time in reflection or prayer. Allow yourself to appreciate your memories of and love for the person. 
  6. Find opportunities for generosity. Giving our time and energy to help others is a powerful way to move through grief. “Altruism is a great mediator of grief and loneliness, as it helps us to get outside of ourselves,” explains Goldstein. If the person who’s passed had a cause or organization that they cared about, you might get involved there. Or, you might simply spend time in your mind and body with a growing compassion practice.  
  7. Seek support for your grieving process. Consider for a moment, Am I needing more support around this grief? If so, you might seek out a place where people are talking about grief on a regular basis—a way of normalizing it so that it doesn’t stay in the shadows. A peer-based group, or individual therapy and support, are wonderful ways to begin to process the emotions that are present. 

Second: Call On These Mindful Communication Techniques to Navigate Holiday Conflicts 

We begin practicing mindful communication by simply paying attention to how we open up when we feel emotionally safe, and how we shut down when we feel afraid. Just noticing these patterns without judging them starts to cultivate mindfulness in our communications. 

Practicing mindful communication brings us face to face with our anxieties about relationships. If we are willing to relate to these core fears, each of our relationships can be transformed into a path of self-discovery. Simply being mindful of our open and closed patterns of conversation will increase our awareness and insight. We begin to notice the effect our communication style has on other people. We start to see that our attitude toward a person can blind us to who they really are.

The Principles of Mindful Communication

1) Listen 

When in conflict, if we aim to listen to the other person first it increases the chances that they will be willing to listen to us.

2) Notice

Attending to our own reactivity—by noticing the rise of activation and supporting the calm of deactivation—can help us make wiser choices about what to say and when.

3) Reflect First

People are more likely to listen when they feel heard. To build understanding, reflect before you respond.

4) Try Understanding 

The more we understand one another, the easier it is to find solutions that work for everyone. Therefore, establish as much mutual understanding as possible before problem solving.

5) Identify Wants

Conflict generally occurs at the level of our strategies—what we want. The more deeply we are able to identify our needs—why we want what we want—the less conflict there is.

6) Lean on Emotional Awareness

Being aware of our emotions supports our ability to choose consciously how we participate in a conversation.

7) Take Responsibility

The more we take responsibility for our feelings, connecting them to our needs rather than to others’ actions, the easier it is for others to hear us.

8) Hear the Need

The more we hear others’ feelings as a reflection of their needs, the easier it is to understand them without hearing blame, needing to agree, or feeling responsible for their emotions. 

How to Practice Mindful Listening

Jennifer Wolkin offers a mindful exercise to practice listening without getting defensive. 

While mindfully listening, you might still come up against distractions and triggers, but you can practice noticing your distractibility without judgment and try to redirect your attention to the speaker and the words flowing from them. You can practice cultivating compassion for feeling the need to lash out; you can also do the work that lets you become more attuned to why you are feeling triggered, so you can learn to take a pause before reacting.

Taking the time to listen to how another person feels—without immediately and sometimes impulsively reacting—creates the space for both parties to feel heard. Try this exercise to strengthen your active listening skills: 

  1. Find a partner for this exercise and set a timer for two minutes.
  2. One person begins to speak about whatever they would like, which can include how they feel about the relationship or about anything at all. It’s good to keep the topics light, since this exercise is about practicing uninterrupted listening.
  3. The listening partner practices listening. Nonverbal responses are okay, but verbal responses are not permitted at this time.
  4. After two minutes, the listener now takes a moment to quickly jot down one to three key points the speaker presented as well as what, if anything, they noticed triggering them or distracting them from listening.
  5. Set the timer again for two minutes.
  6. Now switch roles so that the initial speaker becomes the listener.
  7. After two minutes, the listener now takes a moment to quickly jot down one to three key points the speaker presented as well as what, if anything, they noticed triggering them or distracting them from listening.
  8. After each of you has spoken, notice together what thoughts, feelings, or body sensations were elicited during this experience. Notice together, with compassion and nonjudgment.
  9. Thank one another for the time taken out of your busy schedule to strengthen your relationship.

Third: Learn How to Have Difficult Conversations During the Holidays and Beyond

The difference between ordinary conversations and challenging ones is a bit like the difference between canoeing on open water and running rapids. Both involve paddling with balance, but the stakes are much higher and the skills more demanding in white water. Think of a terrible argument you had with someone or a time when you tangled with a family member. Intense emotions, personal blind spots, and mistaken assumptions can make high-stakes conversations unproductive and even explosive. The boat capsizes, your gear gets soaked, and you wash up on shore somewhere downstream.

If you have a choice over where and when to talk, try to set supportive initial conditions: time, place, who’s present. Consider how you can lay a foundation of curiosity and care prior to the conversation. This can create a sense of agreement and mutual respect from the start.

How to Navigate Difficult Conversations

  1. Pay attention to the pace of the conversation. Things tend to move quickly in heated dialogue; a lot of the work is about slowing down. The more you can find ways to naturally pause and deactivate, the easier it will be to stay clear, hear one another, and respond wisely. Taking time to reflect before you respond naturally downshifts the pace of a conversation.
  2. The more you can find ways to naturally pause and deactivate, the easier it will be to stay clear, hear one another, and respond wisely.
  3. Try genuinely to understand. This will show up in your body language, your tone of voice, and other nonverbal communication that supports an atmosphere of goodwill and collaboration. When appropriate, state your intention explicitly: “I’d really like to understand where you’re coming from…” or “I’m committed to figuring this out in a way that works for both of us.” Such statements can shift the entire tone of a conversation. 
  4. Focus on what matters and keep your attention flexible. Instead of belaboring the story of “what happened,” listen for what matters to both of you. If you’re hearing demands, internally translate them into requests and respond in a way that honors the other person’s needs. 
  5. If the situation is complex, consider breaking it down into multiple conversations on different days. Your initial pass might just focus on empathy, trying to listen and hear the other person. Next time, share your side and endeavor to build mutual understanding. 
  6. For the final pass, explore strategies for moving forward.

Be Thoughtful About Communication

Mindful speaking isn’t just a compassionate choice—mindful speech makes for more effective communication. What’s more, these guidelines are also useful online, where anonymity and impulsivity can bring out less than the best in humanity. Practicing mindful speech may prove challenging, but the rewards of effective and positive communication that causes less harm to everyone are well worth it. While mindfulness can’t prevent every interpersonal oops, nor mend every political rift, we can follow a few guidelines for more mindful speech both online and off. 

Try THINK: 5 Tips for Mindful Speech

Mindfulness wisdom often recommends reflecting on whether what we are about to say is true, kind, gentle, and timely. Mindfulness teacher and psychologist Chris Willard adapted the popular mnemonic tool THINK (before you speak) with some variations to bring in a bit more mindfulness and compassion.

Is it True?

Is it Helpful?

Am I the one to say it? What are the Intentions and Impact?

Is it Necessary, Now?

Is it Kind?

T: Is it true?

First and foremost, we want to speak the truth. In this way, we avoid harming others, and we also are less likely to ensnare ourselves in a web of lies, mistruths, and the cognitive dissonance and guilt that come with them. Saying what’s true is more than merely the opposite of lying. At a more nuanced level, we want to speak important truths, because they might help and inspire others. Saying what’s true is more than merely the opposite of lying. It’s the importance of speaking our truth, and speaking truth to power, which themselves can be revolutionary and empowering acts. 

H: Is it helpful? 

Before we speak, we can reflect on whether it will actually be of benefit to anyone, including ourselves. Gossip about others might be true, but it’s rarely helpful and often harmful. Even bragging might be true, but if it’s helpful at all, it’s only helpful to us—and more likely annoying and alienating to others. The same is true when we offer certain kinds of feedback to those around us: The words we choose might very well be true, but they might not exactly be helpful.

I: Am I the one to say it? 

Some statements may be true, and helpful—yet it may not be our business to give voice to them. Wise reflection helps us discern that as hard as it may be, it is our job to speak up. Still, the challenge can come in knowing if we are being baited or trolled into a fruitless keyboard battle or dinner-table debate, which is when these other “I” guidelines may help: What is my intention, and what was my impact? 

N Is it Necessary, and is Now the time? 

Even when other guidelines work, we might still ask ourselves if what we want to say is actually necessary. We can WAIT, a helpful mnemonic I learned in my training as a therapist, and simply ask ourselves Why Am I Talking?

Sometimes, the most mindful speech of all is no speech, but rather restraint of keyboard and tongue, or simply listening. It is also in our silences and pauses in conversation that we create the space for budding insights and ideas to emerge.

K: Is it Kind?

In the end, feedback will be best received if it’s presented in a way that’s patient and kind. When someone is feeling attacked, their fight-or-flight response overrides their ability to take in new information. Another aspect of kindness to consider is whether our conversation is ultimately positive or negative. I’ve noticed in myself and others that it’s often easier to default to negativity than positivity, especially when we are trying to connect. 

A Simple Gesture of Self-Compassion for Difficult Conversations

Mitch Abblett offers a gentle practice to show yourself some kindness before or after a difficult conversation.

  1. Call to mind a recent painful conversation in which you may have behaved unskillfully. Vividly imagine it until your body and mind are stirred with some degree of discomfort.  
  2. On a slow in-breath, bring your hands to your heart. Join them loosely together, or perhaps rest your palms gently alongside your cheeks—in a way that fits for you, place your hands in a gesture of kindness and care.  
  3. On a slow out-breath, feel the warmth of your hands and notice the effect this gesture has on your experience of this moment. This is self-compassion. 
  4. Come back here again and again, particularly to ease the pain of difficult conversations.

Fourth: Use These Guided Mindfulness Practices to Ease Holiday Stress

Whether you’re rushing to complete last-minute holiday errands or taking it slow this season, pausing for some dedicated time of reflection and self-care can help us engage more effectively with kindness for ourselves and others. These guided meditations offer opportunities for rest and mindful tips that you can use any time to help strengthen connections, ease overwhelm, or just get through if this is a challenging time of year for you. May these practices help you tap into a bit of lightness, resilience, and joy that you can return to long after we ring in the new year.

1) Let Go of Stress and Make Room for Ease

The holiday season can be a time full of commitments, planning, and (pleasant or unpleasant) anticipation. Use this guided practice to help navigate stress that may arise. Remember to check in with yourself and acknowledge what you need to tap into ease. 

A 20-Minute Guided Meditation to Ease Holiday Stress

A 20-Minute Meditation to Ease Holiday Stress with Christiane Wolf

  • 19:15
  1. Start by finding a comfortable position, with your back resting against your chair and your feet on the ground. Feel the support of the ground and the support of whatever you’re sitting on right now. If the breath is a comfortable anchor for your attention, connect with your breath and the sensations of breathing in this moment. 
  2. Take a few deep breaths. On your exhale, let yourself release tension that is easy to release. Notice any tension that is more difficult to release and allow it to be here. Give yourself the gift of not having to do anything right now. 
  3. Let your breath be your guide. Sit here and let the breath breathe itself, in company with your attention. When you become aware that your attention has wandered away from the breath, gently bring it back. 
  4. Invite the mind to settle, and if you care to, remember beautiful moments, joyful moments. (Maybe from Thanksgiving this year. A lot of people saw loved ones again for the first time after two years.) Take your time as you remember small moments or big moments of joy, happiness, connection. You can imagine each of these memories as a pearl that you place into a bowl—as if you’re collecting treasure. One memory at a time, let yourself feel your treasure. 
  5. Now think about the upcoming days. The next weeks might be quite full with planning, work, family obligations, preparations for celebrations, and anticipation. Let yourself feel it all. 
  6. What do you need? What do you need more of as a resource, as an anchor to this time? Maybe you need to focus a little bit more on rest. Maybe you need to implement a short walk in the fresh air every day. Maybe there is something you need to say no to. Maybe you need to give yourself permission to be imperfect—to be human. See if there’s anything arising now that you’ll want to remember after this meditation is over. 
  7. Let all the thoughts, images, and concepts you brought to mind dissolve back into silence. Take a few longer, deeper breaths as you get ready to end this meditation and continue with your day. 

2) Cultivate Compassion for Yourself and Others

This practice for increasing compassion helps us to remember what we share as human beings. It’s not a replacement for methods of coming to appreciate our differences, yet those are incredibly important too.

This practice from Mirabai Bush compliments those, by helping us to know how we are the same. You can do the practice by bringing to mind a friend, a colleague, someone who is neutral, or someone who is difficult. You can also do this practice with a live partner while you are sitting across from each other or looking at each other, and repeating the phrases silently. You can use these phrases or others that seem more appropriate to you.

Remember That Others Are Just Like You

A “Just Like Me” Compassion Practice with Mirabai Bush

  • 7:22
  1. Begin by being aware that there is a person in front of you, either in your mind or actually sitting across from you. A fellow human being just like you. Silently repeat the following phrases while looking at your partner:
  • This person has a body and a mind, just like me. This person has feelings, thoughts, and emotions, just like me. 
  • This person has during his or her life experienced physical and emotional pain and suffering, just like me. This person has at some point been sad, just like me. This person has been disappointed in life, just like me. 
  • This person has sometimes been angry, just like me. This person has been hurt by others, just like me. 
  • This person has felt unworthy or inadequate at times, just like me. This person worries, just like me. This person is frightened sometimes, just like me. 
  • This person will die, just like me.
  • This person has longed for friendship, just like me. This person is learning about life, just like me. This person wants to be caring and kind to others, just like me. 
  • This person wants to be content with what life has given, just like me. This person wishes to be free from pain and suffering, just like me. This person wishes to be happy, just like me. This person wishes to be safe, strong, and healthy, just like me. This person wishes to be loved, just like me. 

2. Now, allow some wishes for well-being to arise: I wish that you have the strength, resources, and social support to navigate the difficulties in your life with ease. I wish that you’ll be free from pain and suffering. I wish that you’ll be peaceful and happy. I wish that you’ll be loved because you are a fellow human being, just like me. 

3. Whether your partner is right there with you, or you have brought your partner into your mind, thank that person for doing this practice with you. Give thanks in whatever way feels appropriate.

3) Check Your Holiday Expectations

While the holidays signify powerful joy, generosity, and togetherness, even in a year without a pandemic, they can also bring up feelings of stress, disappointment, and conflict. In this guided practice, Chris Willard draws on Christopher Germer and Kristen Neff’s work on mindful self-compassion to address our expectations, both for the holidays and for ourselves.

Practice Self-Compassion

  1. Find yourself a comfortable posture. You might allow your eyes to close. 
  2. I invite you now to bring to mind a challenging moment. Maybe you lost it a little bit with the kids. Maybe you burnt dinner. If you’re feeling stressed, maybe you’re just not feeling like you’re able to show up in the way that you want to, for others or for yourself. Whatever it might be, bring to mind a small imperfection and just notice how this feels. 
  1. You might notice that a critical voice starts speaking: “What’s the matter with you? What’s wrong with you? You can’t do anything right.” Just notice that voice. Perhaps you can even ask it to step back. 
  2. Now, with a more compassionate voice and some words that resonate, name this experience. Is this a moment of suffering? Is this challenging, hard, or stressful? What’s important is that the words feel true to you. Use the kind of words you might offer to a friend, a child, or someone you care about, with a tone of kindness and patience. 
  3. Then, I’ll invite you to bring some words of connection. Something that reminds you that you’re not alone. This is a hard year for all of us. We’re all struggling right now, nobody’s perfect. What are the words that resonate, that feel authentic to you? If you like, maybe just rest your hands over your heart. Give yourself something of a gentle hug or just feel the warmth of your hands in your lap. Just remind yourself that you’re not alone
  4. Lastly, a few words of encouragement: May I let this go. May I forgive myself. May I be patient. May I be kind to myself as I would be with people who I love, because I do love myself. I do deserve this compassion. May I not expect everything to be perfect. May I remember that I’m not alone. May I not set such high expectations for myself and others. 

Take a few more moments just to offer yourself some kindness. Remember to pause at any moment in a stressful time, naming the experience and remembering that you’re not alone. Offer yourself some words of kindness and encouragement.

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Mindful Staff

Mindful Staff editors work on behalf of Mindful magazine and to write, edit and curate the best insights, information, and inspiration to help us all live more mindfully.