It’s ironic that the “most wonderful time of the year” is also the most stressful. I watched the TED talk done by the man who sat in seat 1A on the flight that crashed on the Hudson. “Sully,” the captain, said three words as they descended in silent emergency, “Brace for impact.” The power of those words has never left me and when I feel especially worried, they seem to appear. When I worry about the holidays and the impending doom I fear I can’t control, I often think I, too, must brace for impact. As a psychologist, I sometimes feel the need to help others do the same. It is a conflict though, wondering if assuming or anticipating something negative helps to create it. Then, the cautious shrink, the one that hammers preparation, quickly bats the ball back over the net. Preparation is critical in each and every area of life. In performance, it is the key; you don’t just perform well consistently or over time without preparation. Sure, there are the one-off’s or happenstances, but to be intentional or reliable in your performance, preparation is the deal. As much as we don’t want to think about bad or negative things happening, how do we prepare for it while not forcing it to happen?
It is a stressful time in general. The world is experiencing a kind of uncertainty that is unusual and incredibly disruptive. We have a division in our country not seen since we were only 34 states and less than one hundred years into this experiment of democracy. This division is frequently seen inside of families, with members falling on opposite sides of the fence. Add this to the “normal” family issues and Houston, we have a problem. Being defensive, or offensive in the sense of moving with offense, not “offending” someone, seem to be our only options. Finding middle ground feels impossible for some reason, perhaps because everything is so incredibly emotional. Even if your family all reside on the same side of the fence, someone you know or love doesn’t, and navigating that creates stress. Even the simple act of turning on the news or opening up an app on your phone can send your heart rate past comfort and release all kinds of stress hormones. When your body is in a stress-reaction mode, very little good can come from it.
So, what do you do? Maybe you simply avoid and hope for the best. Risky but common. You prepare, but maybe it doesn’t ever seem to help. I say to prepare but not in the way you are thinking. Don’t do what I said I usually do, which is to brace for impact. Prepare NOT to brace, prepare to flow. So, where do you start? One of the best things you can do for yourself is to take care of your physical self. Sounds like a no-brainer but we have gotten very good at ignoring how our bodies are feeling and just soldiering on. The unfortunately fortunate thing is we can do this for a very long time. Better living through modern chemistry is not just a funny line but the truth. We can mask our pain or discomfort enough to get through the day, without really thinking about the long-term effects. Just a little more attention to the physical body can have a big effect. I usually tell someone in the midst of a personal storm to make sure they eat, sleep, bathe (yes, many leave this out when super stressed), laugh, and exercise or move. Eating is easy around the holidays but definitely too easy. Over-eating or eating things you don’t usually eat with the kind of frequency we do this month is tough to tolerate as well as recover from. Temptation is everywhere so don’t think you can just avoid it, see if you can temper it. Have a cookie or a piece of pie but don’t have five. Don’t deny yourself because that builds up and when the pressure breaks, hold on. But I digress. The point is the better you tend to your physical body, the better your mind and brain work, and you will need them to be sharp.
When I coach executives, I often ask them how they prepare for each day. They always answer the calendar is the thing, the red thread, the clothesline that strings the day together. Where to be when with whom and for how long. All that planning often misses the critical part of preparing…emotionally. It is easy to think about where to have your physical body show up, and even what to know mentally, but what about how to be emotionally? We are emotional beings and even though we work hard to ignore that, it is the truth. Even in business. Performance hinges on emotional states, period. So, the next time you look at your calendar, try asking what emotional state you should be in to have success in that moment, meeting, project, or relationship. If you know a meeting, either business or personal, has the potential or promise of being tough emotionally, get ready for that. Make sure you have eaten recently enough because the lack of glucose in the body can impact your ability to think. Sounds silly but it is true. Even a snack can boost mental performance, which directly impacts emotional performance. Think about how you have reacted emotionally in the past to a similar event and look for how you might want to react differently. Be curious about how to get a different response from yourself, which will assuredly lead to a different response from the other person. This is not easy to do, I know, however, making the effort is the only way to create the change.
When I started on this part of the journey, I had to first figure out what I reacted to. I started making lists at the end of each day of all the things that upset me. Prolific, these lists seemed to never end. After a few weeks, the imbalance was getting to me, so I shifted to the things that made me feel good or better. Honestly, these lists were more challenging to produce. Then, I did both, writing down which events produced a negative reaction and which events produced a positive one. The obviousness was surprising in that while it seemed obvious in hindsight, my ability to “head it off at the pass” was completely missing. All the things I reacted to had simply become part of the scenery and I failed to notice them. The exercise of writing them down helped to bring them to a level of awareness, even if it was after the fact. Slowly, I started noticing them in the moment. I could actually feel myself getting upset or happy and then connecting it to the event or “cause.” Then, finally, I started to be able to see it coming. The good stuff is easy but the negative stuff sucks. But having a little bit of warning goes a long way emotionally, especially in terms of being able to control my reaction. Some people have the gift of pause naturally. Me, not at all. I blame it on my extreme extroversion, but I have learned to pause through this exercise of creating awareness: first after the fact, next in the moment, and finally, before it happens. The more intense the emotion, the more challenging it is to manage myself and my emotions.
I want you all to be prepared emotionally for not only the holidays, but for always. With as much as we have to reckon these days, if we can’t do it at home with people we love, how can we possibly do it anywhere else? Start with yourself and then with the people who have the potential to be the most forgiving. Sure, family members can like to hold a grudge, but they also like to love. I am working on thinking about flow this year for the holidays. How can I have better flow and less resistance or brace? When I am more mindful or aware of my emotions and what I am reacting to, only then do I have a chance to “control” them. If I know I am reacting to something you said in the past and super-imposing it on our current conversation, then and only then can I hear something new or different. Nothing is more difficult, yet nothing is more satisfying either. Here’s to preparing for the holidays, I hope it helps.