Expectations for family holiday gatherings can be impossible to meet, even under the most favorable conditions! When we host family gatherings, we can weigh ourselves down with the belief that we are personally responsible for the happiness of everyone who will be our guest. We can even believe that the happiness of someone hundreds or thousands of miles away from us is somehow dependent on what we do or say or write. No wonder we are tense and weary long before the big holiday arrives!

Recently I have spoken with several people who are not at all excited about bringing together family members who in the past have not gotten along well. Some even seem to be dreading the holidays. Most of us don’t enjoy friction and tension, so it’s not surprising that we don’t look forward to experiencing those unpleasant feelings.

We’ve been taught by film, other media, and advertisers that there is such a thing as a perfect family and a perfect holiday. Movies, widely circulated images, and even music reinforce that belief. We plan gifts, decorations, meals, events, and even conversations against the backdrop of that gold standard, that image of perfection.

That image implies that there is such a thing as a perfect family, a family without conflicts and tensions and triggers. Could that really be true? No! For most of us there is a large gap between the idealized Norman Rockwell images of family celebrations and the reality of difficult relationships that can arouse anxiety long before everyone gathers.

Can there be a “perfect” family holiday? Not likely! Human beings are not perfect. When we come together we can expect friction to arise, leading to words or actions that may not be found in a Norman Rockwell illustration.

Can we learn to appreciate ourselves and our family and friends even with the behaviors and traits that get on our nerves? Yes, we can, but we might have to work to shift the lens through which we look at ourselves and others.

Can we fully enjoy and be delighted by a holiday with unpleasant bumps and turns in the road? Yes, but the degree to which we achieve that delight has a lot to do with how we mentally approach the occasion. We need to prepare, and that requires something that is counter-intuitive, especially when we think we can barely get everything done when we are charging ahead at full tilt!

The most important thing to do is to PAUSE. We need to stop what we are doing both mentally and physically several times a day. Break the cycle of thought and action that keeps us on the hamster wheel. Step off. Take a deep breath. Take another deep breath. Look to the distance. Look up to the sky. Broaden our view.

Noticing ourselves, thinking about what we are thinking about, is a very important skill. Sometimes it is referred to as the executive skill of metacognition. When we are charging around that hamster wheel at full speed, we lose perspective. When we lose perspective and neglect to pause, we also forfeit our ability and opportunity to make choices. We are pushed forward by our beliefs or other people’s expectations or any number of things other than our own desires based on our values and priorities.

In the moment of pausing, options become available to us. We can choose a different action, we can question a belief, we can reflect on the bigger picture. We might still choose to go back to what we had doing before the pause, but we will be taking off from a different foundation, basing our actions on different way of thinking. And that can make all the difference!

Two ADDH Coaches, Madeleine Cote and Barbara Luther, created a list of what they called “ADHD Thinking Traps.” These are ways of thinking that everyone is susceptible to, but folks with ADHD can take them to extremes. At times of stress like holidays, these thinking traps can show up in full force. It can be a vicious circle, like the hamster wheel, because the thinking traps also cause stress.

My next several articles will take a look at those thinking traps in relation to holidays and family gatherings. Check back over the next few days to see if you find some helpful ideas – and please share yours in the comments below each posting.

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