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  • Dr Rachel M Allan

Managing stress, pressure and obligation at Christmas

Tensions and patterns that have strained quietly under the surface all year (or for much longer than that) can take their toll over the Christmas season. Extra social events, extended time with family, and the management of time and money, can highlight the unhelpful patterns we are prone to getting into, or the unhelpful strategies we turn to in order to cope. A sense of duty, of wanting to please, or of needing to live up to a certain ‘ideal’ (either in our own eyes, or the eyes of others) can put us under extra pressure. On top of these things, the season can mean we face spending time with people who we find difficult to be around. It is no wonder that, for many of us, the festive period is associated with stress, pressure, dread and resistance.

Some of you got in touch to say that one of the main stressors at this time of year is the sense of obligation that arises. And, linked to that, is spending extended periods of time with people who we find difficult. For many of us, behaviours such as appeasing people who put pressure on us, or denying our own needs and emotions for the sake of harmony in the family, will have had survival value at an earlier point in life. We might find ourselves agreeing to things we don’t really want to agree to, or compromising on boundaries that keep us safe and healthy the rest of the year, because these are learned behaviours that activate automatically. If left unchecked, unhelpful patterns can escalate, and this can lead to us feeling dejected, trapped and, ultimately, resentful.

The first step to getting a handle on unhelpful patterns is to recognise them for what they are. Where have these patterns shown up before? The important thing to remember about any emotional and behavioural pattern is that it was probably developed at a time earlier in life when it served you well. So, for example, keeping extended family members “happy”, or maintaining a “perfectionist” standard may have been necessary, in order to secure safety, recognition or validation, at an earlier point in your life. Patterns like these are almost always born out of our early life context. But ask yourself, are some of the patterns that you continue to act out more than a little out of date?

Of course, some of the choices we make over the festive season are driven by the things that matter to us. Maintaining family relationships, for example, or being a contributing member of the community, are values that resonate with many of us. So, how can we continue to honour what matters, while letting go of the unhelpful patterns that cause us problems? First, we need to identify what pattern we want to change. Is it holding ourselves to an unrealistically high a standard? Allowing ourselves to be dictated by should and musts and ought-tos, rather than making choices that reflect what truly matters to us? Is it getting caught up with negative narratives and complaining, or being endlessly critical of ourselves or others?

Noticing unhelpful patterns is the first step to making a positive change. From there, we can examine where things need to be different – how can we reduce the momentum of our negative cycles, and build in more of what really matters to us? Very often, an important part of this process is about establishing healthy boundaries. Be that around how we deal with pressure or obligation, how we relate to individuals who we find demanding or challenging, or how we manage our own urges to over-indulge, be that with food, alcohol, spending, or anything else. That could mean paying close attention to our own urges, and recognising them when they appear. It could mean practising assertiveness with others in our lives. Or it could simply mean practising the fine art of saying no.

With healthy boundaries in place, we may find that we are able to enjoy things we previously dreaded with greater freedom. That is the great paradox of boundaries – once we know what the limits are, and that understanding is established and shared, we can enjoy freedom within those limits. This can help us let go of dread, anxiety, and the sense of resentment that goes with having agreed to something when we really meant no. It can also reduce any sense of pressure, regret, or resentment that we may previously have grappled with, and help us show up and be present in the moments that really matter.

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© 2020 Rachel M. Allan.  Website by Yvonne Murray.  Images © Andy Allan Photography.

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DR RACHEL M. ALLAN 

CPsychol, DPsych, PG Dip, MA, MBPS