‘Tis the Season for…..Holiday Stress?

It happens every year: the decorations go up, and so does the holiday stress.

Even if the decorations aren’t in your house, even if you don’t celebrate a particular holiday, it can happen. Lots of lists show up at this time of year, suggesting ways to handle the holiday stress. And I don’t disagree with most of them; it’s just that they rely on a “do’s and don’ts” formula, with a disclaimer to “do what feels right to you.” A big problem is that, for many folks, figuring out “what feels right” is hardest during times of stress and competing demands.

 Knowing our values is one thing that can help. We generally feel happiest and most fulfilled when we are acting in line with what is most important to us.

But sometimes our own values can be in competition with one another.

As an example, I value love, kindness, beauty, and self-care, among other things. They are important to me, and I get satisfaction from making them part of my life. Some holiday options that relate to these values are getting together with people I love, doing nice things for others, having pretty lights and a decorated tree, and spending a whole lot of time in my pajamas, asleep or reading on a couch (or, to be honest, sleeping on a couch with an unread book on my face.)

 Obviously it’s going to be hard to do all these things all at the same time. It won’t be safe for me to climb a tree and put up lights in my pajamas! And lying on the couch won’t be as fulfilling an experience without the glow of a decorated tree, or without the company of my family.

 In an ordinary year, I usually find a way to fit most of these things into my life so that there is a balance. (I admit it, the balance leans more towards pajamas and couch time. I’m ok with it.)

But some years it’s been nearly impossible.

When I’ve been out of my mind with worry about a family member’s health, suddenly my patience – with other people’s needs, or with other people’s opinions about how to put up the tree – has gone way down.

 If you’re in the middle of a time of stress that comes from more than the season itself, like dealing with a death, financial worries, or a big change, I’m sure you will have noticed similar changes. The hard part is that usually our values themselves don’t change. We still want to be kind, generous, comfortable, and surrounded by beauty. We still want to make choices that reflect our value for homemade instead of bought, our care for the environment or our commitment to social justice. And we still want our holiday preparations or activities to reflect those values.

And that’s where the holiday stress multiplies, and guilt has a chance to creep in.

So what’s possible in that kind of situation? I think a bottom-line, first principle to follow is the same rule the flight attendants quote before the airplane takes off: “Put on your own oxygen mask first, before helping the person next to you.” It’s important to remember that you cannot accomplish anything for someone else if you’re exhausted. If authenticity or honesty is important to you, being clear with others about how you’re really doing will be an action in line with your values.

Here’s where “just do what feels right” isn’t as helpful as it sounds.

Because it might not feel right to look after yourself. You’ll probably feel wrong about neglecting what you see as your duties. You’ll feel bad or sad about missing out on some of what you usually really enjoy. This sounds like bad news right? Like a no-win situation. But I truly don’t see it that way. Sometimes knowing what’s right (what’s in line with our deeper values) can give us the strength and grace to tolerate the harder feelings.

If we can bring the value of compassion to this question, then I think the whole picture changes.

Softening our hearts toward ourselves, leaning into what hurts about where we’re at, softens our hearts all around. We gain perspective and grow compassion for other people’s suffering too.

If I can accept that I’m exhausted, grieving, sick, or stressed, and that I’m going to feel short-changed and sad about letting go of some of the more stressful holiday preparations in order to take care of myself, then I’m at a lower risk of throwing a tantrum while trying to make things perfect for the kids.

 If I can see, accept, and take care of my own stress, sadness, and anxiety, I can help the kids to accept theirs. We can learn together how to soothe what hurts. And it’s not just kids – the same thing goes for partners, aging parents, and anyone else we share our lives with.

 Beginning the honest conversation about what’s really going on for us can be the most valuable holiday gift of all.

 I’d love to hear what values guide you in your holiday decisions. Do you struggle with some of them conflicting with each other when you’re feeling low or under stress? You can comment below, or on my Facebook page, or drop me a line! And of course, if you need some help clarifying what’s most important to you, or managing the realities of bereavement, caregiving, or major life transitions, I’m here to help. You can contact me HERE.

The Geology of My Spirit

Have you ever felt like certain landscapes nourished your spirit?

Sixteen years ago I took a road trip all by myself for about six weeks. Sometimes it still feels like yesterday. During that trip I spent about two weeks exploring a string of National Parks in Southern Utah from Arches near Moab through Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion, and some of the surrounding country. I was immersed in a landscape of otherworldly rock formations and a warm red colour palette completely foreign to the “50 shades of green” of the Pacific Northwest that I was accustomed to.

Somewhere in my spirit there was a desert rat just waiting to run free.                                                                                         

I listened with awe to Park Ranger lectures on desert plants, animals, and the history of the original human inhabitants of those lands. I went on that trip during a time of personal distress, when I felt worn out, lost and not at home in my own life. My spirit felt as dry as sandstone. I hoped to find myself again by getting a little lost out in the world. Coyotes, lizards, eagles, ravens, and a surprisingly beautiful tarantula let me see what belonging looks like to them. The tang of juniper and the burnt caramel scent of Ponderosa pines, and the prickling dry heat of the sun drying my skin after swimming in a cold river brought my spirit back home to my own body and senses.

Who knew my biggest learning would be from a Ranger talking about rocks?

I don’t honestly remember which park I was at for that lecture – but the impact has remained. The words themselves, “sedimentation, lithification, uplift, erosion,” still echo in my spirit like a drum, a poem, a call. The cyclical process of growing and forming, then being undone in some way, to reform in a new shape, is so universal that even rocks go through it. You could think of this as just psychology, but for me it touches on something essential enough that I choose to call it spirituality.

These incredible canyons, cliffs, and stone arches were formed when mud, sand, stone, and gravel were eroded from other mountains, swept downstream, and deposited in new layers (sedimentation.) Over time, with the pressure of its own weight, and with the help of minerals in the water, those materials became stone again (lithification.) More time passed, and forces from deep within the earth forced the layers upward (uplift.) And the cycle begins again as wind and water cut through the rock, eroding it and exposing the layers to view (erosion.)

All at once I could see myself at every place in that picture.

At that time I felt scraped thin, with all my layers, good and bad, exposed. I think that’s how it is for most of us at one time or another. Wherever we land in life, we build up layers of what works: thoughts, beliefs, habits – all the stuff that we end up thinking is “us.” We can turn into a kind of stone: brittle, unbending.

 Sooner or later though, a bigger force comes along, like a change or a loss, or even just the passing of time. But it acts on us like an earthquake, to shake us up. Maybe it lifts us up, maybe cracks us open. Then all those layers of habits and old beliefs, all the things good and bad that make us tick, are out there for everyone to see. We’ve been trying to bring the skills and the story of who we were before, along with us as we grow up or change circumstances, and it just doesn’t work. Hopefully seeing leads to learning, maybe a little loosening, but for sure it leads to change.

 And so we’re swept down another river again, until we can settle again into stillness and a new shape, until that no longer serves us, and we get to ride the whole process again.

Want to see the actual geology? Check out this site: https://www.nps.gov/zion/learn/nature/geology.htm