Gratitude in the Family - Premier Counseling
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Gratitude in the Family

Anna Dobbs, MS, LPC-S, CAMS-II, TA-S

During the holiday season, many of us spend more time with family. With the added pressures of the holiday season, you may find yourself feeling as though you should feel grateful, but you’re having difficulty remembering that with all the extra tasks, travel, and tense situations. Finding time for gratitude with your family during the holidays may not be easy, but it can be very rewarding. In this blog, we take a closer look at how to make room for yourself during the holidays and value of taking time to appreciate your family – even in the midst of holiday chaos. If you’re really struggling with the pressures of the holidays, remember we’re here to support you at Central Arkansas Group Counseling with individual, couples, and family therapy sessions in Benton and North Little Rock.

What are the Holidays to You?

What comes to mind when you think of the Holidays? Maybe it’s the smell of a freshly cut Christmas tree waiting to be loving adorned with lights and bows. For some, it might be the warm taste of hot apple cider or a marshmallow-filled cup of hot chocolate. While your thoughts of the Holidays might be filled with excitement and fond memories, this is not true for everyone.

If you fall into the latter category, you are not alone. The reality is not everyone comes from a happy, healthy family, but take heart this doesn’t have to take the joy out of this time of year for you. Instead of dreading your holiday, you can make time for yourself, find reasons to feel grateful, and set boundaries to ensure you can celebrate the holidays in a way that feels safe and healthy.

Why is it Important to Have Gratitude?

According to research, thinking of things we are grateful for and expressing gratitude to others can heal our brain. It sounds impossible, but it’s true. Gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus, which controls numerous bodily functions, including sleep, appetite, and metabolism. The more often we exercise our hypothalamus by feeling and displaying gratitude, the better our hypothalamus functions. This leads to decreased stress, anxiety, and depression as well as improved sleep and better immune function. All the added stresses of the holidays can be difficult, but finding one thing you can be grateful for in the midst of this chaos will actually contribute to building the mental fortitude you need to get through it. So, if you’re struggling with holiday stress right now, take a deep breath and think of something or someone you’re thankful for.

Why is it Important to Set Boundaries?

In addition to strengthening your hypothalamus with gratitude exercises, setting and maintaining boundaries to navigate complex family dynamics during the holidays is another way we can engage in self-care. The phrase “setting boundaries” is being used more and more in our culture, but what does it mean? More importantly, what does it actually looking like in real life? A boundary can look very different depending on the individual. However, the foundation of a boundary is always the same – I am responsible for my thoughts, my feelings, and my behaviors. I am not responsible for the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others. Let that sink in for a minute. What a completely liberating but at the same time utterly terrifying thought. However, when you apply this simple fact to how you approach stressful holiday situations, you may just find yourself feeling a little better.

Examples of Difficult Holiday Situations

Okay, but what does setting a boundary actually mean, and when should I set one? Let me give you a two examples of difficult situations where boundaries can be important:

“I am dreading going over to my in-laws. My mother-in-law lets my kids do whatever they want. In fact, it seems like she enjoys encouraging the kids to do exactly the opposite of what I say. I know I can say something, but she starts crying and I just feel so guilty.”

“I really want to spend time with my family, but whenever I am around everyone, they start talking about things I did when I was younger. Everyone laughs. I get it. I have made some dumb decisions, but I was younger then. Last year, I got up the courage to tell them that it hurts my feelings when they say those things. They told me ‘you have always been too sensitive. It’s just a joke.’ Then, they started making fun of me being too sensitive. I love my family, but I feel terrible about myself when I leave.”

The Thought Process Behind Setting Boundaries

If you can relate to these stories, you are not alone. It’s okay to love your family, but you can also be angry with them or hurt by them at the same time. Let’s look at three fundamental truths. 1. You have a right to feel your feelings. 2. You are not responsible for the feelings of other. 3. You always have a choice.

Now that we have our truths defined, let’s apply these truths to the scenarios above – how might the person be feeling in each of these situations? – Sad? Angry? Anxious? Hurt? Depressed? Possibly all of the above? That’s okay. How might the others in the story be feeling? – Sad? Angry? Anxious? Hurt? Depressed? Possibly all of the above? That’s okay too. You are not responsible for their feelings just like they are not responsible for yours.

You are however, in charge and responsible for your behavior as are they. When working with young children, I will ask them, “Is it okay to get angry?” Frequently, they answer, “No it’s not okay to be angry.” My answer to that is, “It’s okay to feel your feelings. It’s not okay to hurt someone because you are angry.” A feeling is a feeling. Being angry doesn’t hurt anyone, but our behaviors can hurt others. This goes in to the third truth – You always have a choice in how you respond to others, and this is your responsibility.

Examples of Boundary Setting During Difficult Holiday Situations

In the first scenario, the mother-in-law allows grandchildren to do whatever they want. When the person approached her mother-in-law, she cried, leading to feelings of guilt. How could you set a boundary here? First, let’s remember that boundaries need to be set on what we can control – our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We cannot control the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others. You cannot make your mother-in-law change her behavior. You can say that you will leave at a specific time, and you can remind yourself that your kids will only be bingeing on sugar and running wild for that limited time frame. You can also decide to adjust your kids’ diet, screen time, and other behaviors at home if you know they’re going to be bingeing at grandma’s house.

In the second scenario, the individual has many options. They can attempt to change the subject when family starts talking about their past behaviors. If this doesn’t work, they could leave the room for a while or suggest an activity (game, family video, etc.) to encourage a shift in conversation.

Start Feeling Better About Holiday Plans

So, what comes to mind when you think of the holidays? It might be stories similar to the ones shared above. Families are not perfect and that’s okay. The holidays are not a time of joy and happiness for everyone and that’s okay too. We cannot control our families, but we do have three truths that can give us freedom and allow us to set boundaries. 1. You have a right to feel your feelings. 2. You are not responsible for the feelings of other. 3. You always have a choice. When you find time to experience gratitude at the holidays and set healthy boundaries, you may find yourself feeling a better and enjoying even the most stressful times. Need a little extra help getting through the holidays? We get it. Don’t hesitate to contact me or one of my coworkers at Central Arkansas Group Counseling in Benton or North Little Rock. We’re here to help.

Photo by Sheri Hooley on Unsplash