Can you feel it? Beginning the day after Halloween, the frenetic pace and energy builds, rumbling like a volcano about to erupt. Events, trips, dinners. Shop, chop, drop. As November slides into December, the to-do list takes on a life of its own; the calendar explodes.
Or you have none of that. While everyone else is caught up in happy events and celebrations, you can’t wait for all the hoopla to end. Bah humbug and get me out of here.
At this time of year, expectations reach unrealistic highs and demoralizing lows. So…you might consider brushing up on equanimity.
Equanimity means inner calm no matter what happens. Equanimity means being able to take a step back from your emotions so you can respond instead of react. You can observe instead of getting pulled into fight or flight. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Planning ahead helps too.
Equanimity and people you see once a year
Aunt Marie, who you haven’t seen for a year, hugs you. Her perfume lingers on your skin and clothes for the rest of the day. She asks, just as she does every year, “So, when are you going to lose a little weight?” Or “When are you going to get married?” Or “When are you going to have a baby?” That’s the same Aunt Marie who gives you gifts you know she dug out of her closet: a reindeer sweater two sizes too big (you have lost weight), a wool scarf (you’re allergic), or kitchen utensils (you never cook). You smile and say thank you to the gift and “Not sure” to the questions.
Uncle Rob slaps you on the back. He starts, just as he always does, talking about sports or hunting or politics or any other topic you vehemently disagree with him about. You squirm and smile hoping he’ll stop.
Running into what can best be described as the difficult people in our lives can cause stress. These people (never us!) can be difficult in many ways. Asking intrusive questions is one of the more insidious.
The questions seem genuine, the person interested and concerned, but really, these people are either hoping to hit the mother lode of entertaining information they can later share with someone else, they feel uncomfortable socially, or they are genuinely interested. Whatever their motivation, just because they ask, doesn’t mean you have to answer!
Just say no
Narrative therapy gave us many gifts, one of which is a change in the paradigm of questions and answers. In Narrative Therapy, the choice to answer a question or say “No, I’d prefer not to answer that one” can make you step back for a moment to consider how automatic this response is for you.
Most of us will answer questions, any questions, if they are asked with the expectation of an answer. Questions can seem innocent enough. But is the answer something you want to share with this person, other people you don’t know who this person will tell, or even Facebook? FB is a stretch, but you cannot be certain that what you say to Aunt Marie will stay with Aunt Marie. Besides, we’re all entitled to a little privacy, even from well-meaning relatives.
How are you?
How do you respond when someone asks “What’s new?” “What’s up?” “Waddup dawg?” or “How are you?” Those wide open question can leave you swirling inside wondering where to set the limits on your answer. Do you talk about your work? Your relationship? What if there is nothing new? What does this person want to know? “Not much,” is the usual response. “And you?”
If you are quick-witted, you might be able to respond by making the other person laugh or smile. “New Mexico.” Ha, ha, old joke, not funny, but the other person may laugh anyway.
Most of us just say, “Not much,” “Same-old, same-old,” or something similarly uninteresting and unrevealing.
Here I go again with the mindfulness suggestion. But honestly, it really works for many, many people. Practice being calm and you will be calm. Not quite a fake it till you make it approach, this is more of a practice to change one habit or state of mind to another.
That’s right. Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Do that for five minutes a day from now until you run into Uncle Rob at your mom’s for a family get-together. Then notice. Just notice how you feel when he starts his monologue. You might notice, even after only six weeks of continuous practice, that you don’t get the usual get-me-out-of-here feeling. You might notice that you can think more clearly and find a way to feel and show gratitude and appreciation. Or you might find a way to excuse yourself from the conversation before it gets too uncomfortable.
You know these people. You know you’re going to see them. Plan a response to the usual questions they ask. If you are swimming through life and you have nothing but good news to share, let it rip. If you’ve run into a few snags, you might talk about your pet or a hobby. Plan for the tough questions. Plan a kind, but firm refusal answer. Most people will respect your desire to avoid certain topics. “You know, I just don’t want to talk about that now,” or “I’d prefer to keep that to myself.”
When you feel overwhelmed or cornered, excuse yourself. The bathroom is always a good reason to leave a conversation!
Preparing for the holidays includes taking care of yourself. Practicing equanimity is one way to do that.