Dr. Roberta Gilbert
It is almost time for the holidays again. With it comes many wonderful gatherings with family and friends. We Elders know that all the coming-together can be great, creating many sparkling memories. They can also leave us wondering what happened, what went wrong or how our relationships could be improved.
To explore that question, let’s take another look at important relationship postures. The main ones that people take when anxiety rises (and it does at homecomings and parties) are: Conflict, Distance, Over-functioning/ Under-functioning reciprocity, and Triangling (yes, we use the word as a verb, too).
People seem to be ripe for conflict these days with politics and politicians setting the pace, so it is not surprising when someone comes at us with a hostile attitude involving politics, or maybe something else.
It’s just the mood they are carrying around. Maybe they’ll raise voices. Maybe they’ll gesture menacingly. They probably won’t throw the china, but warlike moods are in the air these days, Christmas or not.
Let’s go back to look at the defensive postures people assume, as they try to deal with anxiety.
Distance can be what people seek when the conflict (or any posture) gets too intense. We instinctively try to get away, running figuratively in our minds or sometimes by stomping out. We may need a little distance at times, but sometimes it isn’t possible when people have come so far or made special efforts to be together.
Over-functioning happens when someone attempts to dominate the conversation. It’s their way of trying to control an uncomfortable situation. With Underfunctioning, people seem shy, withdrawn, or not wanting to be a part of “it all.”
With the above two postures, we have the “fight or flight” postures of animals that we learned about in biology 101.
Triangling occurs when another, present or not, is drawn in. Talking about someone, who is not present, in a negative way or going to someone to “dump” feelings about someone else, would be examples of Triangling.
These postures are neither bad nor good. They are simply human. But whenever possible, it is best to stay out, aiming for emotional neutrality, not taking sides nor getting too intense. It is important to realize that just as these anxious postures only make things worse, they also spread. They are contagious. That is because anxiety itself, firing them from beneath, is contagious. These postures are attempts to resolve the anxiety, but they don’t work. Deep within us, we know and feel that. So, we tend to react.
Reacting, from more anxiety, heightens the problem. Responding, from thoughtfulness and logic, is good if it can be done in a less-anxious way.
What do we do? How do we respond without reacting emotionally? Responding is a good thing because calm emotions are also contagious. That’s the good news. And that is the impact we may have upon a tense situation at the dinner table or anywhere else. To respond from a calmer place than the rest of the room, we need to get outside the anxiety. Three ways I know to get to a calmer place emotionally, are:
- Start To Observe
One way is to imagine one is in a spaceship looking down. Me? I often think I’m Jane Goodall watching the apes. Who is anxious? Where and how does the anxiety travel? When do I become vulnerable to it? Observation involves the cerebral cortexes, which are soothing to anxiety.
- Relax Your Body
Relax all the voluntary muscles, especially legs and arms. Relaxation of muscles is incompatible with anxiety.
- Take Some Slow Deep Breaths
Deep breathing helps to give some distance and refocus attention to a non-anxious activity. The resulting calm is a little Christmas gift we can give to a group if we practice at home a bit beforehand.
One more thing, want to try something different this year? For several years I have realized that the holidays are more anxiety-producing than they need to be. I concluded years ago that a great deal of stress arises from a surfeit of presents and shopping. Once we eliminated that, most of the anxiety disappeared. The logic goes like this: We all have everything we need. We do not need to be giving gifts that no one needs or wants, so why not enjoy a nice dinner or give the money to charities that we usually spend on presents to help people who really need it? So many in the world are really desperate for what we might easily give. There are many of these and many charities to choose from. I highly recommend this way of giving.
Email me if you need ideas for charities at: email@example.com. In the meantime, Happy Holidays and a Happy 2022.