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Dealing With Holiday Stress

For many people, there seems to be an inherent stress that comes with the holiday season. From hosting family gatherings to encountering various family members, there are a variety of factors that add to the tension of it all. In today's podcast, Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff share practical advice on how to navigate the stress of the holiday season in a way that honors God and blesses those around you.


Transcript

Chris:

Welcome to The Art of Relationships. I'm Chris Grace.

Tim:

I'm Tim Muelhoff.

Chris:

We are excited to be able to bring to you each week this idea of relationships, but more importantly than the idea, it's really the practical outworking of some things that we've been studying, thinking about, and preparing for a long time, that is, how do we do relationships well, the science and the art behind relationships?

Tim:

That's right.

Chris:

We're here at Biola University. Go to our website, cmr.biola.edu, and learn a little bit more about some things we do and some other podcasts that are out there. Dr. Muelhoff, what do you think about this topic today, and what are you interested in talking about?

Tim:

You know, Chris, no matter how much you study communication, there are just some seasons of life that you take everything you've ever learned and throw it out the window. I think, for many listeners, that's got to be the holidays. It's the perfect storm of just the stress of the season and then you invite over relatives that you haven't necessarily seen in a long time and all those simmering hurts, and disappointments, and expectations. Add to that a little bit of spiced eggnog, and you just have a recipe for some real conflict. We know from research that the holidays really do produce a lot of potentially volatile situations, so we thought, "Let's tackle it."

 

Come Christmas season, like we're in right now, let's just talk about how do we let some of the steam off, and some coping mechanisms. As you're trying to plan this Christmas gathering, what are some ways that we can keep it in a positive light and keep it from turning negative? I love, Chris, what comedian George Burns said. He said, "Happiness is having a large loving, caring, close-knit family in another city." I love that. Let's talk about some ways that we can perhaps deal with the stress that is just inherent in Christmas.

Chris:

I have a question, Tim, that really has I think for a lot of people, when they think about holidays and they think about going to a house that they grew up in, or maybe seeing family, an aunt's house, wherever they're at, one of the things that I want to ask you about is how do you navigate that feeling when you get there that you're right back where you were and you're being treated almost the same way as you were as a kid and now you revert. You could be 40 years old, or 30, and you've been out of the house and married for a few years, or even just a college student, and you get home and you feel like you're back to where you were and you're being treated that way. That can be really stressful. There are things like that, that I wonder how do we navigate that, where we're preparing for that, thinking that is going to happen, and indeed it almost always does.

Tim:

The first thing, Chris, is I think it's good to lower expectations heading into it. For example, I'm haunted by this painting by Normal Rockwell. It's a family gathering; they're all sitting around the dinner table. They're all looking at Norman Rockwell, laughing, smiling. If my expectations are that this is going to be a Norman Rockwell Christmas dinner where everybody will get along, everybody will love each other, and I finally will be treated as an adult, I finally will be given the respect that I think is owed me, and I don't feel respected when I'm around family members, if all of that weight is placed upon the day, then there's no doubt that you're going to be disappointed.

 

Lowering expectations could be as simple as saying, "Listen, I just hope that we have a pleasant time together. I'm not going to try to manufacture this once-in-a-year great family reunion. I'm just going to let it play out." Letting it play out is not putting all that burden that you're finally going to be accepted; this is going to be a beautiful celebration. It would be great if it's a nice get-together and people enjoyed each other, the kids got to open some presents, it was a fun time, but take that phantom idea of what Christmas celebration is supposed to be and get rid of that.

Chris:

Would you write it down? How would you do that? How would you lower your expectations, and how do you not compromise and worry about that, like, "Oh my goodness, I shouldn't settle for less"? How do you process that? What's your solution to this idea of preparing and getting ready by lowering your expectations? I think, "Gosh, I shouldn't write down what I want it to be, but what I'm willing to settle for." Is that the idea?

Tim:

In some ways. I would say, based on the communication perspective, you have to know what the communication climate is like heading into it. In other words, if last Christmas it was not a good time, there was a lot of tensions and some things were said towards the tail end of the evening that produced some hard feelings, or you didn't feel like you were appreciated ... You're the one who hosted the dinner, and it's like, "Man, I barely got people to say thank you, and nobody helped with the dishes." So if that's what last year was like, then I think you set your goals realistically in light of last year.

 

If last year was a hard year of a gathering, then I would say, "You know what? Pleasant is nice." The fact that people showed a little bit of appreciation, and maybe one person helped me with dishes, and we tried that huge family devotion thing that didn't work so well, I think I would, based on, again, if last year was great, and you had this really special moment and everybody got along great, then I think, "Hey, let's reproduce that." That's awesome. If it wasn't so great, then take that into consideration when you now say, "Hey, I would love to have people laughing around the dinner table. I'm going to settle for smiles."

Chris:

That's great, Tim. You're a communications expert. This is your PhD. It's something that you're trained in, you work with, so let's-

Tim:

Chris, can I tell you why I'm laughing right now? Because I think of family get-togethers and I think of Christmas photos where having a PhD in communications didn't do a darn thing. It just didn't work.

Chris:

I'm going to say same with the psychology PhD. It just really doesn't work all that well.

Tim:

That's the craziness of Christmas, right? We should just embrace it is an abnormal time filled with abnormal stress, and so let's give ourselves a little bit of a break. This is a tough situation filled with a lot of different factors. Go ahead. That's why I'm laughing.

Chris:

Yeah. I think it's funny that we struggle so much with this. What if it's out of your control? You set expectations. I can manage my hopes or my dreams for the day; I get that. What if it's between two other people that don't get along, and I know they're both going to be there? My hope is I want them to get along; I want people just to be happy. I just want this to be a fun time. I can control me mostly, but I maybe can't control Person X and Person Y, and that really stresses me out thinking they're going to argue, fight. What do you do with that when it comes to expectations? I think one thing is you maybe navigate the seating chart or have people over at different times or something.

Tim:

I think even the way you phrased it, Chris, is what I'm talking about, lowering expectations. If you've got two people you said who don't get along and there's some bitterness or latent conflict, they're not going to be happy. That would be an unrealistic expectation.

Chris:

That everybody is going to be happy?

Tim:

That these two people are going to be happy. They're not. I think I would separate them with a seating chart. I think I would be a peacemaker to both. I think I would engage both in conversations. I think I'd be complimentary towards both. I don't think that they would sit together, and I don't think that I would ask them to do things together like, "Hey, let's all of us go help clean," or "Let's all of us go sit and watch a football game," or something like that. I think it is good to have separate things.

 

Again, I'm lowering my expectations to say, "Hey, I just hope these two people can be adults," which sometimes they can't and they don't, and they act inappropriately. Lowering expectations is, "I just want an evening where these two people are cordial to each other." I think that could be realistic, and you try to accomplish that. Now, that wouldn't be for the whole party; you'd want people getting along, and being happy, and having fun. If you know there's two people who this could blow up pretty quickly, then I think I lower my expectations thinking, "I'm not going to expect a Christmas hug between the two."

Chris:

What do you think about the idea in that situation of having a conversation ahead of time? How would you navigate that? Could you go up to Person A and say, "Hey, listen, I'm really so glad you're going to be here. I know that Person B causes some issues and stress for you, maybe some other people, and it's hard. This is really a party I'm excited about, or a celebration, or a time, and I just want to know if there's anything I could do ahead of time to make that time easier."

 

Is it something you could approach with Person A and maybe then again with Person B at a separate time just to almost navigate and set up your expectations and hopes, or is that something that you say, "You know what? Let's just wait and see how it turns out. I've been doing this for ten years. I'm not going to change it now. They're always going to be at each other's throats at different times."

Tim:

I think if my communication climate is strong enough with each one independently, then I think that's appropriate. I think I might give them a call and say, "Hey, we so appreciate the fact that you guys are coming. We'd love having you there. I know that there's some tension between you and so-and-so, and our hope would be that this would be a fun time and a time of celebration." I think priming the pump that way, if your communication climate is strong enough with the two people you're going to talk to independently. 

Chris:

Great. First thing you do, one of the things, is you lower your expectations. What other advice do you have if you're thinking about holiday stress and things like that that you would advise as we navigate this by lowering expectations? What's something else?

Tim:

Let me give you the biggest one. All of us would have our shopping list for the event, right? There's got to be enough food. We've got to make sure we have drinks, napkins, games to play, and then we go to the store and we absolutely stock up on all of those kind of stuff. The Puritans had the idea that just like you go to a store to stock up on material goods, you should go to what they called the market day of the soul and store up on God's love, grace, because that's going to get tested the day of the event.

 

I make the argument that a good Christmas celebration starts the week before. That's a Sabbath time where I soak in God's grace, His love; I get a divine perspective that God loves me in spite of how I treat Him sometimes. That way, when I walk in, it's not that I've just stored up on ham, potatoes, sparkling cider; I've also prepared spiritually for this and maybe have people praying for me and praying as a family. That market day of the soul, I think, is really important, a Sabbath-type rest, heading into the event knowing that that grace is going to be expended throughout the day.

Chris:

It's so funny; it make me want to just ... In the last few days, my wife and I had a conversation about, "You know, the holidays are coming. We always put on five pounds, ten pounds, it seems like. Maybe we ought to have a fast before we get in." It is interesting. It's almost similar, isn't it? You prepare your heart, prepare your mind, is what you're saying, and as you do that, because they're going to be depleted just like your resources are going to be, that this depletion requires a reinvesting in some of these spiritual exercises that could be ... That's a great suggestion. I love it.

Tim:

I just want to say from me and Noreen's point of view, if the present you're going to get us for Christmas is financially putting stress on you and Lisa, just don't do that to yourself this year. Just lower it a little bit.

Chris:

Thanks, because I think we've lowered that expectation quite a while ago.

Tim:

Noreen doesn't necessarily need a present, right? I can give you my shirt size later.

 

Here's another one. Here's a practical one. I call it periodically sit at the kids table. What I love about Christmas gatherings is the kids don't know necessarily about the stress that's happening. They're there; they want to open presents. They want to eat like crazy. They want to go outside, build a snowman.

 

Sometimes, if it's getting to be too much with the adults, then I like taking a break, but taking a break where you walk outside and you play with the kids. You help them build a snowman. You sit and play some board games with the kids. This does a couple things. One, that physical activity actually produces positive endorphins that give you a positive outlook. Building the base of a snowman with a bunch of kids is actually a great way to change your outlook. Second, everybody loves the fact that you're spending time with the kids. I see an uncle playing with my kids and I think, "You know what? That's cool. That's cool that he'd take time and be that kind of uncle or be that kind of relative."

 

I love, every one and a while, if it's just getting to be too much with the adults and the conversation is heading in a way you don't want it to head, and you see what's happening, I might just excuse myself, go outside, and throw a couple snowballs at a couple kids, and they'll think you're the awesome uncle. Then make one big iceball and then hit the adult. No, I'm kidding. I'm sorry. You know what I mean. That kind of stuff is good. Kids are a great diversion sometimes to have fun at their level and see Christmas through their eyes.

Chris:

I think that that's a great suggestion, especially when you realize that oftentimes we can catch emotions. We've talked about that on our podcast a number of times. Emotional contagions are there, and we have this way of interacting with people who may not be happy that day and others, but children tend to almost be in the other category. Of course, there are some kids who aren't having a good day, but for the most part, you could almost encourage and increase your emotional contagion and mood just by hanging around people who are excited about the day. Sometimes that's the kids. That's a great suggestion.

Tim:

And to talk positively about the kids. Everybody loves to hear compliments about their kids. I think that is a great way of complimenting parents. Even when you feel like, looking at this adult, "I just don't know if there's much I like about this adult," but focusing on people's kids. This was a little bit ago, but remember the second presidential debate? Remember this? Again, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, they went at each other. We know that.

 

One question at this town forum was what do you like about each other, and I thought Hillary's answer was interesting. It's obvious she doesn't like Donald Trump very much, but what did she say? She said, "You know what? I admire the job you've done with your kids." Donald Trump looked like he was genuinely encouraged by that. Even if you're having a hard time with this adult, complimenting their kids is a great way to release that, build up some positive interaction between you.

Chris:

I think you can put in that category their pets, as well, something that means something to them, right?

Tim:

Something, yeah.

Chris:

You can find something. People are so invested sometimes in their pets, like, "I love your dog," "Tell me about your cat," "Tell me about your dog." It could very well be something that they're interested in. I think, Tim, what that brings up for me is ... That idea is showing interest in another person is oftentimes a way to relieve stress, when instead of trying to be interesting all the time, that you try to be interested. I think that's the idea.

 

We show an interest in somebody. "Tell me about your kids." "Tell me about this." "Tell me what's going on." You express interest, versus trying to always be interesting and be the life of the party. That's a great little phrase we oftentimes use with our kids. If you want to influence people or be someone that's a good friend, it's better to be interested than to be interesting. We've talked about that before, but it's a cool thing.

Tim:

There's great conversation starters. Christmas, the season, allows great conversation starters, everything from, "Hey, what did you get for Christmas?" You can ask that question of a child as well as an adult. You could also ask the question, "How did you guys celebrate Christmas growing up?"

 

You and I are not from California. I'm from Michigan; you're from Colorado, where Christmas was very different. There's actually snow, and you're not in your T-shirt throwing a ball with your child on Christmas Day out in the street. Ask people, "Hey, what's Christmas like in Colorado?" "What's it like in Michigan?" "What was your favorite Christmas memory?" If they are sports fans, we always celebrate the Detroit Lions losing that day. It's just a beautiful, sad...

Chris:

That's just a common anniversary right there.

Tim:

...tradition right there.

Chris:

Tradition. Let me ask this question. One thing that I think can also be helpful, even in homes ... Both you and I were raised in pretty small areas, but almost moderately to nonreligious types of families, and now we're establishing new traditions. One of those that seems to work and permeate when it comes to stress is we establish something right at the beginning in our family, and that is just reading the Christmas story. You could Google the Christmas story. If you don't have a Bible there, or if you do, you can go find it and put together this idea.

 

It really puts into focus something about the holidays, and I think that might manage expectations a little bit, where you're reading and you're realizing, "Wait, what is my expectation? What are we doing here this day? In reality, what actually are we celebrating?" Just having that kind of mindset change can put you into a new way of thinking about something, and maybe even help not only with expectations but create in other people, "My goodness, we have a lot to be thankful for."

Tim:

The only thing I would add to that is if you do have non-Christian family members coming over, or even nonreligious family members coming over, or people who used to be ... you were brought up in the same religious home, but now your family attends church, and you know your brothers and sisters really don't ... my only caution there would be don't heap upon your siblings and rub their nose in the fact that they're not super spiritual. I love the idea of reading the Christmas story, but I would also have non-Christian games, a non-Christian tradition or two that they can jump in. Otherwise, they could see all the religiosity as this backdoor slap in the face like, "Hey, you're going to be religious this day." I love the idea of having one religious element. I just would be careful with non-Christians and even people who should be more religious than what they are because of their upbringing but they're just not. Be careful of the balance.

Chris:

What else have you got for us?

Tim:

Another one is don't take the bait; just don't take it. There's a great Proverb where the ancient writer says, "Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlooks an insult." No doubt, on Christmas Day, as the day gets longer, if there's alcohol involved, then you start to get comments at the end of the day when people are tired and stuff like that. If a person is sarcastic towards you or brings up an issue that you've agreed, "Hey, we're not going to talk about this," but they're bringing it up, then I think a prudent man, says the book of Proverbs, is you can overlook that insult.

 

It takes two to have a disagreement. It takes two to have an argument, so don't take the bait, no matter what. Again, I would say, if the conversation is heading in a direction you just don't want it to go into, there's always an out to say, "Hey, I'm going to go real quick check if they need help in the kitchen. Would you like anything?" or "Hey, I'm going to go get myself a quick drink. Would you like something?" or "How about another round of dessert?" or "Hey, I'm going to check on my kids real quick." Find an out that you don't have to take the bait.

 

That's going to require discipline. Remember, we already talked about the market day of the soul, where you have been preparing spiritually for this day through meditation, prayer, and stuff like that. Again, this is why you store up on God's grace because it's going to be tested by people wanting to bait you, so, again, just don't take the bait.

 

I would even say, with certain people, "Here are the off-limits topics. I'm just not revisiting this. There's no reason we need to bring this up." That might even include, Chris, also, a person wanting to talk about another person, grab you in an aside and say, "Can you believe this about Aunt Carol?" It's like, "Hey, today's a fun day and..."

Chris:

"Let's don't talk politics today," or whatever.

Tim:

Yeah. "Let's don't talk family today," or something like that, and then just divert and shift a little bit.

Chris:

One of the things that we do in psychology when it comes to stress is we talk a little bit about not only knowing what's going on and what are your trigger points, or what are these things that cause you to feel maybe a negative emotion like stress, but also to recognize that which is the opposite, that which can calm me. I wondered, Tim, if during this time, suppose you don't take the bait and instead you do the opposite, that is, you get out of the conversation or the situation and then you almost build in five minutes; you go into a quiet room, go on a little walk, and you remember that which you said. Maybe there's a verse you've been thinking about, or maybe there's a passage of Scripture that means something to you, or a song, and you just go and almost calm down and relax. You almost take a time-out. You give yourself permission to take a time-out and to do some of that thing that you've been practicing the week before.

Tim:

That's really good.

Chris:

It's almost like put on your iPod and you walk outside and you listen to it, or you go to the store and you say, "I'm going to go pick up something real quick, a turkey that's not burned," and then you go or do .. that was funny ... or you go and do something else that you decide I'm going to go, and it's almost like time that you have to recharge, reconnect, and just re-remember almost.

Tim:

Boy, that brings up another good point, Chris, is, "Hey, don't swim alone." You and your spouse are in this together. Let's say you're hosting, and you can just tell your spouse is going downhill, that it's just wearing on your spouse; somebody did say something, and you're finding it really hard not to take the bait. It is good to come rescue each other.

 

Noreen and I used to do this at Little League baseball games where you're yelling at the ump and you're just hacked off, and your spouse says, "Honey, why don't you just ... Can you get me something from the car real quick, and go take that car and drive to another state?" Let's be on each other's team. Often, that doesn't happen in the holiday season, right? We turn on each other and we say, "Hey, did you not think of this? Why didn't you do this? Why didn't you?" Stuff like that. Let's be on each other's team. I think both of you are doing the market day of the soul the week before or the couple weeks before saying, "Hey, let's stay on the same page," and stuff like that.

Chris:

I think, Tim, one of the things we would recommend is that you get a game plan together ahead of time. Maybe there's a code word or a code, something like, "Honey, I'm getting stressed right now. Is this something you can help me with?" Then the person could say, "I'll tell you what, I can't. Why don't you go find this five minutes and go pick up some ice at the store? Why don't you do this and let me take care of that?"

Tim:

Yeah, that's good.

Chris:

Looking out for the interest of somebody else oftentimes starts before that moment in time. As you said, it's the day before and you get that game plan together, then you're doing this as a team. That could unify rather than pull apart.

Tim:

When we speak at family life marriage conferences, sometimes an administrator will come. When he sees that you're in a conversation you just can't get out of, then he'll actually pop in and says, "Hey, Tim, can I see you real quick?" or "We've got a quick meeting. I just need you real quick." I think we can do that for each other in those situations. When Aunt Sally has got you cornered, it would be good to rescue your spouse and come over and just say, "Hey, can I see you for a second?" or "Can I interrupt you real quick?" kind of thing. I think that's good.

Chris:

I think that's really good. You know who those trigger people are. You can talk to your spouse maybe even the day before, or a friend, and say, "Gosh, this is really going to be hard for me. This person tends to ... If you happen to see me stuck in a corner, if you happen to see this, would you mind coming over and helping?" That's a great idea. Those are great.

Tim:

We were at a family get-together one time, and I'm not a huge fan of Rush Limbaugh ... I'm just not. He's just not my style. I'm just not a huge fan of him ... and there's a family member who knows this. We've had this conversation a ton because I do communication and he's a radio whatever, blah, blah, blah. He shows up at this family gathering with this huge red T-shirt that says I Love Rush Limbaugh in neon colors.

 

He walked in and I was like, "Oh, you have got..." so I took my walk early. He walked in; I took my five-minute walk. I'm like, "Okay, this is just how it's going to be, but I'm not taking the bait. We're not going to talk about Rush Limbaugh today because it never goes well, so we're just not going to do it." I was able to avoid that, and even we had a quick laugh.

Chris:

That's great.

Tim:

Like, "Hey, Tim." I'm like, "I see that. You're eating outside today." Don't take the bait on stuff like that.

Chris:

I love it.

Tim:

The last thing I would say is this. Remember the reason for the season in this sense: The reason Christ came is that God knew we all need a savior, so I do think it's good, heading into these stressful situations, to remember all the things that I needed God to forgive me for, that I'm often irritable, and I'm often judgmental, and I'm short-tempered. In other words, it isn't always these relatives that are short-tempered and sarcastic, that I needed a savior. Just as I give myself grace, I need to give other people grace and not be so judgmental towards them, and thank God that He wasn't so judgmental towards me. Perhaps, Chris, the central question this Christmas should be, "Can I be as gracious to my family as God has been with me?" I think that's powerful.

Chris:

It's a great question because, at the end of the day, what we need to recognize is that He comes to us; He desires to have a relationship with us. In so doing, He can bring some things that are deeply powerfully healing and transformative in our relationships. We can be that person, that conduit, that vehicle, and what a great way to have a season that brings Him glory, as is the reason for the season.

 

Tim, this is great. Thank you so much for all of these different pieces of advice on this. We just ask the listeners to come and check it out. Have a great Christmas season. Check out our cmr.biola.edu for even more information on this.

Tim:

Again, Chris, keep the Christmas present reasonable for me.

Chris:

Extra large or large?

Tim:

Just being with you ... 34, 35, medium.

Chris:

Will do, man. All right, everyone, thanks.

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