"It's the most wonderful time of the year. There'll be much mistletoeing and hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near. It's the most wonderful time of the year."
According to popular Christmas songs, the holiday season is a time of unrivalled joy and family unity. However, communications expert, Laleh Alemzadeh-Hancock believes this rosy holiday image ignores the reality for many Australians. "How many people dread having to spend time with their families at the holidays?", she asks.
Hancock is a communications consultant, Right Voice for You facilitator and the founder of wellness organisation, Global Wellness for All. She believes that, if not dealt with effectively, family tension can have a serious impact on our wellbeing long before, and long after, the actual family gathering. "Many people experience a high level of stress due to spending time with family; a nervousness and frustration that often arises before you even arrive at your destination. The repercussions of tense family gatherings can also cause sadness and depression for months afterward", she cautions.
Although every family is unique, Hancock believes holiday tension usually stems from several, common stressors – financial tension, unwanted inquisitions, family drama and spouse/partner conflict. She offers the following advice to help individuals deal with family related-stress. "It's often as simple as forgetting what you think you should be doing, and asking yourself the right questions", she advises.
Financial pressure: According to a recent study, nearly half of all holiday stress is attributed to financial pressures. Travelling to see family can incur large costs but, by far, the greatest pressure can be when buying gifts. "Many people buy into an expectation that there is a certain dollar value before something is considered a gift", Hancock remarks. "But you have to be honest about your finances and understand that not every gift has to cost money. Gifts are an expression of your love so something heartfelt-yet-free like a gratitude note or a song can be just as powerful", she adds. To avoid overspending, ask yourself, What gift do I have to offer that I can easily afford?
Personal inquisitions: Whether it comes through casual questioning or an intense interrogation, having to explain what is going in one's life (such as relationship news, job status, exam results) can be very stressful for some. "There can be a pressure with family to pretend that you're happy when you're not; or that you're doing well, when you're not", Hancock says. "Most people feel they have to be completely honest and transparent with family, but it's actually ok to hide stuff from your family in order to avoid conflict." According to Hancock, having your voice is about knowing when to share, and when not to. For the most conflict-free gatherings, ask yourself What information can my family receive at this time? or, What can this person hear right now?
Family conflict and drama (past and present) : It can be incredibly stressful to gather with family if there is an ongoing conflict, or one that is still fresh from the last holidays. According to Hancock, family dramas can either be inflamed or resolved at holiday gatherings – and it pays to know whether you want to be involved. "Rather than try to keep others happy, it's best to focus on what works for you. Importantly, let go of the past; who got in a fight with who; what happened. Don't bring past holidays into the present", she advises. Ask yourself, Will it create greater wellbeing for me if I go to see my family at the holidays? or, What have I not considered as a possibility that is available with my family now?
Strained relations with your family and partner/spouse: What about if you love being with your family, but they don't get on with your partner or spouse? There can be an expectation that you will always spend holidays together with your spouse or long-term partner, but Hancock maintains that it's ok to do things differently if it works best for you both. "It raises a lot of judgement if you go to family gatherings solo. Once you're married, you're supposed to be attached at the hip. But what if there is choice for you and your spouse that involves being in separate places?" To discover a holiday arrangement that works best for you, ask yourself What would work for my relationship? or How much more fun would Ihave if my partner/spouse doesn't join me? "Remember – it's not true that you have to spend holidays with your spouse/partner – we just make it true", Hancock suggests.
Vitally, Hancock wants people to understand that tradition and expectation do not have to dictate how you celebrate the holidays, nor who you celebrate with. "Choice is something most people don't realise they have", she says. "But you do have options, and asking questions is the key to opening your mind to these possibilities. Don't search for the answers. Let your unconscious mind reveal what's true for you through your body's reactions, impulses and gut instinct."
Laleh Alemzadeh-Hancock is a management and communications consultant, Right Voice for You facilitator and the founder of Global Wellness for All, an organisation that creates wellness in all areas of life, with particular focus on individuals with perceived disabilities. With nearly 30 years' experience in operational excellence, change management, organisational wellness and business consulting, Laleh has inspired and empowered hundreds of thousands of individuals including Fortune 500 executives, government agencies, non-profit organisations, athletes and veterans. She is an advocate for people of ages with special needs or disabilities and their caregivers, and was named the Top Coaching & Wellness Expert in Maryland, Virginia, and DC by Top Doctors Interviews. Right Voice for You is a special program by Access Consciousness.
Question: Why do you believe many of us stress the most during Christmas time?
Laleh Hancock: There is a great deal of anticipated stress around certain situations and expectations that arise as the holidays approach. This can show up in your personal and business life.
At work, it may be the pressure around achieving quotas, managing customer expectations and pressures, and planning for new initiatives in the new year.
There is also the anticipated stress around upcoming social events at work parties and with friends and family. In the lead up, you can get caught up thinking or worrying about all the elements you will have to deal with: from what you are going to wear to what you are going to say and will you be able to sit through all the conversations? Many are not actually comfortable speaking to new people in social situations.
In addition to the stress of added expenses over the holidays with gift-giving and visiting family, many have stress dealing with family politics and awkward situations. A lot of time is spent worrying about what can and can't be said, or lying about their jobs, relationships or problems to avoid having 20 questions around it from their relatives.
Question: How does this stress cause families to fight?
Laleh Hancock: A lot of families have a high level of tension between them that can go back many years. Then, at Christmas and holiday time, that adds another layer of tension on top until it gets to a point where it blows up.
When you anticipate the stress of all the things that can occur, you create this fire inside with all that stress and energy you are internalising – almost like a bomb that is waiting to explode – and you actually begin to create this environment where it only takes the smallest thing in an interaction with your family to make it all blow up. You try to hide and you don't want to have your voice in your family, you don't want to speak about what is really true for you or going on for you, you don't want to ignite or relive old problems again.
But, if you are not able or allowing yourself to have your true voice, you actually hold back what you would naturally say and do to make things better in any situation – because you are more afraid of what the outcomes might be from initiating a conversation.
What if avoidance or trying to just get through it wasn't your only choice? What if you can be aware of what your family can and can't hear from you, and still have your voice? What if there was something you could say or do (even the littlest thing) that could be received by your family and create something greater between you all? It isn't wrong to make a choice to not spend time with family or to avoid certain situations; you just want to make sure you are choosing from the point of view of what is going to create the most for you, and not just from trying to avoid uncomfortable situations.
Question: How can we deal with the pressure of family festivities in the best way?
Laleh Hancock: One of the greatest tools is to practice being in allowance of your family. Allowance is the willingness to allow you to be you and to allow your family to be them – no matter how weird, dramatic, quirky or different they are, and no matter what they are choosing. A great tool to help you achieve allowance is by saying in your head: "Interesting point of view, I have this point of view," in any situation when you get upset, stressed or annoyed. Say it as many times as you need to until you get back a sense of ease.
People often think they have the best intentions for you. For example, you might have a mother whose point of view is: "I care about my daughter and I want her to be healthy. Why isn't she eating all this food I made for her? If she doesn't eat, she will get sick." Allowance is being willing to eat the food that you desire, and not buying into their point of view, or needing to fight or change their point of view, either.
This is also a great tool you can use to diffuse anytime you want to go into defence, reaction or stress around other people's expectations of you.
Question: Is it possible to avoid these stressors all together?
Laleh Hancock: There are many ways to avoid these stressors – and staying away from your family is not your only option!
Instead of anticipating the stress by worrying about the possibility of arguments or problems, start changing your point of view before you go to see your family. When you have expectations and predictions of how disastrous you think it is going to be, you create that as your only possible outcome.
If you are willing to go, "Okay, everything I have already decided that this experience with my family is going to be, I am willing to change that. I am willing to have a neutral perspective and not predict how it needs to turn out." When you do this, you are open to things being different to your worst case scenario.
If you have a parent or sibling that has the tendency to get under your skin, what if you can focus on what you are grateful for? If you focus on gratitude, things turn out very different than if you focus on what makes you annoyed or stressed or what you would like to change about your family. If you didn't make what anyone said and did significant, what fun could you actually have?
Question: What are your top tips for dealing with common family pressures?
Laleh Hancock: One of my favorite tools is make money from your family's judgments.
Be willing to have a fresh start with your family every day. What if what happened yesterday, or 10 years ago, doesn't have to impinge on this moment and the time you are spending together now? Get up, wipe the slate clean every day in your own mind and don't use the history to influence your actions and choices today.
Be willing to acknowledge that your family will have ideas and expectations of who they need you to be. What if that doesn't have to be a problem? What if you could play the part you need to play in the moments you are together, and know that once you leave the holiday party or family visit, you don't have to keep playing that part for the rest of the year? Ask yourself, "What do they require of me right now? Will it make my life easier if I deliver that, or don't deliver that?" What if you could be like an actor in a comedy film and do what you need to do to make things easier, and have fun with it too?
Question: How important is communication during family tension?
Laleh Hancock: One of the greatest things you can acknowledge here is that communication doesn't always have to be verbal.
Sometimes the best communication is not about what you say. What if you don't have to say the right things, or tell them everything about what is going on for you to create a greater connection with your family?
Try this exercise to help get clear on what you can say to your family: "What can this person receive from me? What can they hear?" Whatever comes into your mind, talk about it and share that, and only that. If you want to tell your family members about something going on for you, ask yourself "What part of this can I tell my family that they can hear, and which of that can create a greater relationship for us?"
Although we sometimes want to share everything with people, it doesn't always create greater. You can even ask, "Is this worth sharing now, or later?"
These questions are great ways to teach yourself to be aware before you speak, and to make sure that what you say is going to be a contribution to you and the people around you.
Also, be willing to be aware of what you communicate beyond words or behind words. How often has someone said something to you and you knew they really meant the exact opposite? Your family will be aware of when you do this, too. Before you say anything, ask yourself, "What is my agenda here?" Is your agenda to try and change their point of view about something, to get them to understand you? What if you could ask yourself instead, "What can I say here that will benefit me and them?"
When you have no agenda that you have to tell them everything, or change anything about their point of view, it takes the stress out of communication. You can listen and talk without a need to get anything out of it – you get to relax and enjoy yourself instead!
Question: Is it possible to get through a whole Christmas period without fighting with our partners? How?
Laleh Hancock: Yes it is possible, and one of the things you can do is start your communication with your partner way before planning your trip with your family. With the stress we anticipate around seeing our family – our partners and loved ones get to witness and experience that tension right along with us. Start having conversations about what will work for both of you ahead of time. If you go to this family event, what will it create for each of you and also as a couple?
If one of you chooses not to go, what will that create for you as well? I have seen many people choose to take a vacation around Christmas away from family, creating time for them to spend together as a couple. You have to find what works for you both and it is going to be different for everyone and in every scenario.
Know that your partner and you both have choice. If you don't force your partner to do something they don't want to do, that tends to alleviate the tension and fighting that can arise.
If your partner has other ideas about the holidays, be willing to listen to those other ideas. A lot of the time we have already defined what we are going to have to do or can't do in regards to our families, but our partners may have a more neutral perspective about it. They may be able to assist you in finding ways to make it a smoother process.
Allow your partner to be part of the ideas, the conversation and decision making about what would work and not work and what you want to create together over the holidays.
Question: How can we create a New Year's Resolution that we can actually achieve?
Laleh Hancock: New Year's resolutions are one of those things that tend to fail the first few weeks of January!
Here are some tips for creating resolutions that you can have fun with.
Give up Goals and set Targets instead. Goals immediately put us in a win / lose perspective and we tend to make them significant. With targets you can re-shoot as many times as you like, and you can change them as you change. Say you want to lose weight and you set a goal of 5kgs. If you don't achieve that goal, you decide you failed. If you set a target for 5kgs, you can celebrate every time you get closer, and you can also look at other possibilities. Maybe you lose 2.5kgs and realise that it wasn't about the weight, but feeling stronger and more energised with your body, and change your targets to have more of that, so the weight-loss is less of a focus. With goals, you don't give yourself the mental flexibility to do this, but with targets you continually have a whole universe of possibilities.
Don't put more than 3 things on your list. Most people are very ambitions with what they would like to change and usually don't follow through with it. Ask yourself, "What 3 things would I like to have in my life in 2018? What do I have to do and where do I have to go to actually have those things?" A lot of people talk about losing weight, making money, finding a new job, but it never goes beyond a dream or conversation. For example, if you are looking for a new job, what are the different criterias you are looking for in your new position or company? What information can you gain online? Who can you talk to who has already done this job and can give you some additional information to assist you in creating this job? What else would you have to be or do to bring forward your unique and special talents to distinguish your from the other candidates?
Don't look to last year's resolution list and what you didn't do as the basis for your targets this year. What you didn't do last year may not be relevant to your life anymore, so the inspiration or motivation isn't really there anymore. If it is not relevant to you now, you won't follow through.
Find a partner to help you with your targets. If you are looking to change certain things in your life, you are going to have good days and days that are harder to keep going for your targets. If you have someone you know you can reach out to stay on target and can also be there during the times where it is harder to pump yourself up and get excited, it will be easier.
Interview by Brooke Hunter