Navigating Complicated Interpersonal Dynamics During the Holidays

For many individuals, the holidays are marked by wonderful moments. However, we cannot deny “the most wonderful time of the year” can also be influenced by significant stressors, such as feeling pressure to find great gifts, planning and preparing for large gatherings, feeling obligated to travel to the different yearly family parties, triggering moments provoking loneliness, sadness, and grief… Even though there can be a real part of us wanting to enjoy the holidays, there can also be another part dreading it. 

Of course, the holiday season is already looking very different this year. The global pandemic and its various impacts have forced us to slow down, required us to socialize and practice self-care creatively, and brought different types of losses and grief. As a clinical psychologist, I am supporting clients dealing with their disappointment and sadness for not celebrating the holidays as usual. I am also validating clients who feel relieved for not dealing with the same level of pressure they usually experience.

Through my clinical lenses, I also see this as an interesting opportunity for self-reflection and possible adjustments in our way to navigate those contentious relationships and hopefully finding more ease in dealing with them.

Dr. Karine Côté, D.Psy., C.Psych.

One difficulty that seems somewhat alleviated this year – but still present – is the obligation to face complicated interpersonal dynamics. Whether it is a problematic relationship with a parent, a sibling, in-laws, or friends, we now have the perfect reason to limit contact and staying home during the holidays. Through my clinical lenses, I also see this as an interesting opportunity for self-reflection and possible adjustments in our way to navigate those contentious relationships and hopefully finding more ease in dealing with them.

Reflect on your ideals

The other’s unmet ideals often fuel complex relationships (e.g., your parent, sibling, friend, etc.). When the other does or says something that triggers deep frustration, sadness, or disappointment, this emotion is most likely related to a need or ideal of this person that is once again not met. 

Example: When a mother makes a cold and critical remark, the immediate feelings of anger and sadness are linked to a wish of being validated and recognized by her – not just related to this one critic. The ideal of having a warm and encouraging mother is still not met; the hope of gaining her recognition is crushed once again.

Validate your needs and emotions

To regulate the emotions resulting from an unmet ideal, validating the feelings and taking authentic ownership of the underlying need is essential. It is normal to feel disappointed in a relationship context, but we can also offer ourselves what we need, such as kindness, recognition, or motivation.

Example: The anger and sadness resulting from being criticized by the attachment figure is normal. The need to receive encouragements and warmth is valid. Being able to validate the emotions and needs will lower the emotional activation and meet that need internally (e.g., “I am allowed to feel this way, I can recognize my own achievements”). 

Practice differentiation

The difficulty of a loved one meeting our ideals and needs is often mostly related to them and not entirely to us. Because of their limits, experiences, and requirements, sometimes they cannot meet our ideals. Practicing healthy differentiation, or recognizing what belongs to them and what belongs to us, can help mitigate negative emotions.

Example: The mother is very harsh on herself, not celebrating her positive actions and attributes – therefore, it is hard for her to do it for others. Her tendency to be overly-critical towards others belongs to her self-critique and does not reflect others’ worth or abilities.

Enjoy the good you can get

It is often not because some needs and ideals are not met that the whole relationship is negative. After validating emotions, identifying and meeting underlying needs, and differentiating from the other, it is much easier to feel good from the interaction.

Example: Even if the mother is critical, she is caring and warm in other ways, such as cooking for the family, playing with her grandchildren, often calling, sending thoughtful gifts, etc. The one critic hurts, but it does not represent the entirety of the relationship. 

Assert needs and limits to others

At times, asserting needs and limits is necessary to maintain a healthy relationship and to be able to connect with the other. Talking with “I” statements when we are emotionally calm can help us get what we need from the discussion and offer an occasion for repair.

Example: Point out that the remark made a few days ago was hurtful, and what was wanted was encouragement. Doing so can help get support from the mother and cause her to reflect on her tendency to be overly-critical. 

In summary, navigating complicated relationships can be difficult – especially during the holidays. Taking the time and space to reflect and adjust our own internal experience can positively impact our well-being and interpersonal relationships we deeply value. If you need support to learn how to cope with complicated relationships in your life, professionals at CFIR can offer support and possibly help you move towards repairing them.

Dr. Karine Côté, D.Psy., C.Psych. is a psychologist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR). Dr. Côté provides psychological services to individual adults and couples experiencing a wide range of psychological and relationship difficulties related to mood and anxiety disorders, trauma, eating disorders, sleep disruptions, and interpersonal betrayal. She works from a humanistic approach and integrates therapeutic techniques from gestalt and object relations psychotherapies, emotion-focused therapy (EFT), and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

How to Keep the Happy in the Holidays While Co-Parenting

by: Laura Moore, B.Sc. (Honours)

The media markets the holiday season as a “picture perfect” time to connect with your family; these unrealistic expectations are especially challenging while trying to co-parent. Letting go of “perfect” and working together with your previous partner during one of the most stressful times of the year may feel nearly impossible. Remembering every co-parenting situation can look different, the following tips can make it possible to keep the ‘happy’ in the holidays while co-parenting.

Plan Ahead But Be Flexible 

Create a holiday plan at least a month or more in advance of the holidays. This plan may be derived from your parenting plan or your separation agreement. While making this plan keep in mind the extended family and still encourage these connections on both sides. Although planning ahead is of the utmost importance, remaining flexible over the holidays will reduce upset for yourself, your previous partner, and your children. Believe it or not, the holiday schedule may be much more important to you than to your children.

It Starts with You

This holiday season (when you know you are going to be alone), make plans to see loved ones. Also, seek the help you need from a therapist to work through some of the grief and loss you may be experiencing during the holidays. In this process, you will begin to let go of expectations and find moments of happiness as you embrace new traditions. Allow space for you and your children to be upset and move away from the expectations surrounding the holiday season. By creating a safe, calm, and positive space for yourself, the effects will trickle down to your children as they often rely on you to help regulate their emotions and see the whole picture. Continue to collectively focus on what you do have together and not what you don’t have.

Less is More 

It’s not the presents that make the holidays so special; instead, it’s the presence of the ones we love. It is essential to communicate with the other parent about items that are off-limits for holidays and what is on your children’s gift list this year. Do not try and outdo one another; this will put a lot of pressure on you and make gift shopping and planning activities quite stressful. Try not to overcompensate with excessive activities and planning, and try to spread out the holidays. Most importantly, enjoy some of the simple pleasures of the holiday season. Doing so will allow you not to lose sight of what is most important!

Communication 

Communication should be purposeful and child-focused. When you show empathy and care to your previous partner, it allows your children to see you still have a relationship with the other parent in a positive way. Schedule a phone call to talk about the upcoming holidays. If communication is difficult for you and your previous partner, possibly invest in a gift for one another this holiday and use a communication app, either 2houses or Our Family Wizard. Most importantly, do not use your children as a way to communicate messages back and forth between you two.

Connection

Although you may experience feeling you are alone, your previous partner is probably struggling just as much as you are. Have your children buy a present and make a card for the other parent. Letting your children love and communicate with the other parent will not affect your child’s love for you. As much as splitting the holiday season is new for you, it is also a new concept for your children. Encourage your children to consistently communicate with the other parent via phone, video call, and text. Create a shared album and add pictures to it each day. Also, your children will enjoy any chance where previous traditions can still be shared with both parents.

You cannot go wrong if you put your children first and let them be your guiding light as you navigate the holiday season while co-parenting. The “good enough” holiday season will happen when we let go of our expectations and enjoy what we have created for ourselves at this moment. Remind your children that no matter who they spend their holidays with, the holidays can create a magical feeling that will be in the memories for years to come!

Laura Moore, B.Sc. (Honours) is a therapist at the Centre For Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) in Toronto. She is completing her Masters degree in Clinical Psychology at the Adler Graduate Professional School in Toronto. Laura works with adults and couples in therapy, to support them to overcome challenges related to depression, stress, grief and loss, trauma, and relationship conflicts. Her current research focuses on cultivating spousal attunement following traumatic experiences.

The Best Gift this Holiday Season – Self-Care

by: Dr. Brianna Jaris, C.Psych.

The holiday season is an incredibly stressful time for many people. There are some things that we may not be able to avoid – congested malls, traffic and travel, holiday gatherings and parties, buying gifts, etc… but, throughout it all, the best thing that we can do is to give ourselves the gift of self-care. Here are a few things that we can do to make the best out of this holiday season:

1) Make a plan – Be prepared by making a plan. For example, make a grocery list or plan out when you can do your holiday shopping. Having a plan is the first step in preventing the added stress of forgetting something or having to do things last minute. 

2) Be proactive – Don’t wait until the last minute to shop for groceries for a holiday dinner or shop for gifts. Getting things done ahead of time can give you a great sense of accomplishment and can help avoid the stress of overwhelming yourself with having to do too much at once. 

3) Be realistic – For example, plan for there to be traffic or for the shopping centres to be busy. Also, set a budget and don’t go overboard. It’s important to realize that you may not be able to do it all yourself, so don’t be afraid to enlist help if you need to as well.

4) Set up appropriate boundaries – Establish a timeline for visitation – don’t let guests overstay their welcome. Do certain topics of conversation need to be set as “off-limits”? Don’t forget that setting up healthy boundaries also means being able to say “no” to people or demands. Remember that in order to be healthy, sometimes you have to risk disappointing other people.

5) Build time in for yourself – The most important thing of all this holiday season is to take care of you. Take breaks and build in time to relax as necessary. Self-Care is the best gift you can give.

Stay ahead of stress this holiday season by sticking to a plan, recognizing your limits, and not letting others dictate your holiday. We all want to make the holiday season special for the ones we love, but don’t forget to take care of YOU this holiday season!

Dr. Brianna Jaris, C.Psych. is a clinical psychologist at CFIR.  She has extensive experience in psychological assessment and diagnosis and the treatment of a wide range of psychological issues, including trauma, depression, anxiety.  She is currently the head of CFIR’s Trauma and PTSD service. You can visit www.cfir.ca to find out more about Dr. Jaris.

10 Tips for Managing Holiday Stress in 15 Minutes or Less

by: Dr. Tracy Dalgleish, C. Psych.

Holidays bring us a lot of joy. But the increased demands and events at this time of year can also bring us a lot of stress. We tend to say that we are ‘too busy’ to tackle stress and instead of trying to manage it, we push ourselves to get through each day. Come January, many clients end up in my office burnt out. Managing your stress does not have to take hours each day. Just a few short minutes each day can help you not only cope during this busy time, but also prevent burn out down the road.
Here are ten tips that take less than 15 minutes each day to help you manage stress.

  1. Go for a 15-minute brisk walk. It could be around the building during a break, or around the block when you get home.
  2. Take ten, slow, intentional breaths. Breathe in through your nose counting to six, and exhale slowly through your nose counting to six. Try this while taking a shower, or standing in line at a store.
  3. Notice five things. Whether you are sitting in your office, in traffic, or watching your children play, say to yourself, ‘I notice the license plate in front of me,’ ‘I notice the red book on my shelf,’ or ‘I notice the colour of the lights.’
  4. 5-4-3-2-1 with your senses. Notice five things with your sense of sight (see previous). Notice four things with your sense of touch – the roughness of the chair you are sitting on, the smooth edge of the table, the warmth of your coffee cup. Notice three things you hear – the hum of the computer, a car buzzing by, a door opening. Notice two things with your sense of taste (e.g., the taste of toothpaste left in your mouth after brushing your teeth) and smell (e.g., the smell of fresh air). Take one deep breath in through the nose and slowly out through the nose.
  5. Talk to a friend, lover, or co-worker. Sharing with a significant other about what is contributing to your stress can help you problem solve or work through your emotions.
  6. Listen to music. It can be soothing to listen to music that puts you in a good mood.
  7. Try a guided relaxation or mindfulness exercise. I recommend this “Leaves on the Stream” exercise on YouTube. You can also download the app Head Space and get ten free short exercises to try each day.
  8. Let go of unhelpful thoughts. We all have them – the thoughts of worry, the thoughts of “what if,” the thoughts of the worst-case scenario, or predicting the future. First acknowledge that you are having these unhelpful thoughts, then try letting go of your thoughts and focusing on what you are doing in the moment.
  9. Stretch. We could learn a lot from watching a dog or cat. Every time they move, they stretch! Try lifting your arms over your head with a breath in, and as you let the breath out bringing your arms back down.
  10. Make a list. Writing out your to-do items can help unload the mental energy of trying to remember everything you want to get done. Try breaking items down into small, achievable tasks, and prioritizing items.

Finally, if stress becomes too difficult to manage, reach out for help. Trained psychologists and therapists are available at CFIR to help you manage stress, depression, and anxiety.

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