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Tips for Handling Difficult Family Encounters During the Holidays

Mindfulness is all the rage these days -- and many people use this term interchangeably with the word "meditation." While there are forms of meditation that invoke mindfulness, we can also practice mindful awareness in everyday activities and interactions.
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Many of us visit family during the holidays. We may look forward to their company -- or dread it. Either way, unless you're Jesus, a fully awakened Buddha, or a zombie (if any of these apply, you can stop reading now), there will likely be some moments when the going gets rough. As a wise teacher (Ram Dass) said, "If you think you're enlightened, go spend a week with your family."

And some of us are about to. Eek!

So, what can we do? Unless the situation is so severe that it's best for us to avoid the encounter overall (and this is something only you can answer), you may soon face combustible family moments, even with people you deeply love.

Here are my tips for making family gatherings more fireproof:

1. Reconnect with intention.
Why are you going to visit your family? What's your highest intention for this time together? It can help immensely to distill and even write down this intention before (or while) visiting your family. Then, commit to reconnecting with this intention when making decisions during your time together.

If your family is into this sort of thing, perhaps you can all share your intentions and collectively commit to upholding them. If they aren't, internally reciting your intention can help you make decisions that align with the highest good for you and your family.

2. Remember to STOP
Get ready. This is an acronym that can change your life. When you start to feel annoyed or upset in any way, remember to employ this simple, yet rapid technique that will help take control of the one thing in your power: your response.

Take a breath
Observe the sensations in your body, your thoughts/emotions, your interaction with the other person
Proceed in a way that best supports you, the other person, and your relationship

In moments when we feel flustered, usually our first impulse is to act in a way we'll come to regret. Austrian physician and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl once said: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

Taking a moment to STOP helps us get into this gap between stimulus and response and claim the power to choose the most beneficial action.

3. Be mindful
Mindfulness is all the rage these days -- and many people use this term interchangeably with the word "meditation." While there are forms of meditation that invoke mindfulness, we can also practice mindful awareness in everyday activities and interactions.

As you spend time with your family, practice mindful awareness during regular activities. For example, try eating mindfully -- actually enjoying the scents, texture and flavor potpourri of each bite. While washing dishes, bring your attention to the sight of the sparkling bubbles or the feel of warm water on your skin. When having conversations with family members, become aware of the physical sensations in your body. Notice areas that tense up or feelings of warmth/tenderness as you take in their words. Such awareness can help us take control of our emotional state before we react to what someone else is saying.

4. Invoke the serenity prayer before the gathering. (Hint: You don't have to be religious!)
Recovery communities have long recited one short but powerful paragraph to help free themselves from addiction:

Lord/Universe/Please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

There are three main requests here:

First, it's important to recognize that there are usually many things we can't change in a family gathering. For example, who decided not to attend or the actions of the family members present. This prayer reminds us to release our grip on all things we can't control. Easier said than done, but it's amazing how much easier it is to love someone when we stop trying to change them.

The second part of this prayer empowers us to take responsibility for all things within our control. Often, when our attention gets diverted to trying to fix other people, we stop examining where and how we can shift ourselves. Maybe we can't change our sister's bossiness or our cousin's nagging, but we can certainly ask! If that doesn't work, we at least have control over our response to their actions. Taking the reins requires a healthy dose of courage and fortitude.

Finally, the serenity prayer requests the wisdom of discernment. While there may be nuances to what we can affect and what we can't, the biggest guidepost is this: the actions of others are often out of our control but our own response falls squarely in our hands. This response may include asserting our wishes calmly and confidently, and then not clinging to their reaction to our request (which is beyond our control). While this can be excruciatingly hard at first, it does get easier with practice.

Thanks so much for reading. I sincerely hope these four steps bring greater joy and ease into your holidays. I would love to hear about tips and tricks you have. Please share in the comments section below and let us know how it goes.

Happy holidays!

For free meditations and more from Jamie, please visit