How to Survive the Holiday Shmear

By Eve Ekman

6 Tips to Have Stress-Free Family Gatherings this Christmas

What’s the ‘Holiday Shmear’?

That’s my name for the combination of shame and fear that many of us can experience at family gatherings. As a teacher of meditation and emotion awareness, I hear many of my students express such feelings. Some worry if they’ll lose any gains they may have made in their mindfulness practice and emotion regulation skills.

But there are other ways to view stressful family gatherings. I see this time of year as a great opportunity to notice when we are still caught in old emotional patterns and stories. This is especially true with emotions we would rather not work with, like the ones that make up the Holiday Shmear. 

Breaking Old Family Patterns

Sometimes referred to as our smoke-detector emotion, fear generates vigilance for potential threats to our well-being. This is extremely useful if indeed we are in imminent threat of harm, but not when the fear is generated by an imagined future or imagined past, or both. You might, for example, sit through Thanksgiving dinner worrying that your father will once again bring up career plans and thus remind you of what a failure you think you are. Here we are both projecting into the future and remembering a past event. We are living outside of the present moment of eating a holiday meal which might actually be OK—or even good!

What if, instead, you saw the fear as a request to check in on the content of your thoughts, and inquire, with tenderness, whether you are actually in the present or “time traveling” to the past or to the future? Research has shown that trying to push away fear with harsh self-talk, like “Stop thinking this way!”—or attempting to suppress the talk altogether—can often add fuel to the fire. There’s an alternative: clear, kind reappraisals of our situation.

Shame is a whole other experience. With shame we’re stuck in an interminable now in which we wish we could disappear completely. The story of shame is far more dynamic than the smoke detector of fear. Shame is a self-conscious emotion. In shame we imagine an “other” outside person who is judging us as bad or wrong—not that we do bad or wrong but that we are fundamentally bad. This is enormously threatening to our sense of self and even hits a core survival fear: If we are truly wrong, we won’t be loved or accepted.

Shame in the family context can come from regressing into a toddler-like tantrum when your brother criticizes your new partner. Or it can be triggered by a sense that our family isn’t “normal” or “good like other people’s families”—and so we are not-normal or not-good by association. It can be hard in these moments to recognize that all families are functional and dysfunctional in a variety of ways—and that it is within our family encounters we find some evidence of our earliest aches and hurt. As world-renowned researcher Brené Brown so powerfully illustrates, our feeling of shame shuts us down, and we can be harder on ourselves than anyone else ever could. While fear needs reappraisal, shame needs a healthy dose of care, gentleness, and compassion.

But how? I know, I know: This is all so much easier said than done. Here are my top six strategies for working with the Holiday Shmear—before, during, and after family get-togethers. Feel free to print, laminate, and carry with you inside your wallet on your way home for the holidays!

1. Learn to name your own emotions

Emotions have different flavors and different ways they make us want to behave—and there may be different ways we need to calm or take care of ourselves with them. Identifying how you feel is simple, but not easy. To do that, try using visualization and memory to work with emotion.

  • Close your eyes and notice what it feels like in your body right now. What sensations are you feeling and where, is there tingling in the brow, tightness in the shoulders, warmth in the chest? Just check out whatever you are feeling.

  • Then bring to mind an episode of anxiety or worry with as much detail as possible. Take a couple minutes to do this.

  • Try not to get caught in the story of what was happening; just remember what was happening and who was involved (if anyone else), and then see if you can remember what it felt like in your body as you were feeling that fear.

  • Next, completely release the memory and just focus on what sensations you feel in your body now and where.

As we familiarize ourselves with how different emotions feel in the body, we are building our ability to use this information when we need it. When you’re sitting at the table and your shoulders are tight and your chest is heavy, you can notice to yourself: “I am feeling fear.”

2. Gather emotional resources before you go

Cultivating emotional awareness is a critical skill for all areas of life. But before you specifically go to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving or Christmas, there are three resources you can gather that will help you to survive the Holiday Shmear.

The first is good intentions. To find your intention, spend some time thinking about what is valuable about the holiday—about family and what you would most like to bring to the experience. The intention should be straightforward: “I am going to take breaks when I am feeling sad”; “I am going to be loving to myself”; or just “I will focus on caring not judging.” Or maybe your intention arises from a specific annoyance, like the way your sister seems to be always bragging about her son: “I will endeavor to see the love that is part of how my sister feels pride for her child.” On your way to the holiday event, engage this intention as you are walking up or taking the elevator. You can re-invigorate this intention when you go to the bathroom or wash the dishes. Keep reconnecting to this intention quietly to yourself. 

The second resource you can bring to holiday gatherings is a calm place. Before the gathering, figure out something that makes you feel soothed, calm, and relaxed—and is easy to access. This could be a song, a poem or even a short quote. This can be difficult to find in the moment, with your uncle drunkenly yelling at your father, so find your calm place ahead of time. You might also find a place in the body that is neutral—shoulder, elbow, pinky?—and then put your attention there. Once you invite this kind of calm, you can then see things as they are, with a bit more clarity.

Finally, it can be useful to come up with a small storehouse of beautiful memories that you can retrieve when needed. You can practice taking notice of even the subtlest form of beauty available in any situation: the light reflecting on a wall, the play of the wind on a flag—something you can focus on instead of your difficult emotions and ruminations.

3. Before and during a gathering, reality-check your fear

In anticipation of a family gathering, we may start to have some raucous ruminating thoughts about worst-case scenarios. This pre-rumination is a great time to start working with reality-checking fear or frustration. For example, you could have a memory from a prior year when your younger brother stuck you with setting up and cleaning up Christmas Eve dinner—but that frustration might prevent you from taking in other information, like the fact that he has two kids under five and is under a lot of pressure at work.

Before you start dreading and ruminating, try gently asking yourself these questions, suggested by a Tibetan teacher named Tsoknyi Rimpoche: This fear is a real feeling, it is a deep feeling—but is it true in this moment? Is it true to what is happening right now? Once you’ve done that, Tsoknyi suggests you take care of yourself.

  • Identify the fear-based thinking.

  • Notice where it is coming from, the stories and memories.

  • Engage in some feelings of care about these feelings.

  • With this care and tenderness, recognize that these memories are in the past. They feel real but are not necessarily true.

  • Take a couple moments to simply repeat to yourself, gently, this is real but not true.

There’s another benefit to conducting this investigation: It will help you to ask others for what you need. Instead of expecting your beleaguered brother to be your only help, enlist cousins in set-up and clean-up, so that you’re not alone with the responsibility.

4. Take self-compassion breaks

This involves taking the time to really recognize the difficulty of feeling fear or shame, as opposed to trying to not feel it, or distracting yourself with your phone, or pretending you are OK—and then doing what you can to alleviate your own suffering. You can learn more about the self-compassion break in the Greater Good Science Center’s library of research-tested practices, Greater Good in Action (GGIA). Here’s how we describe a self-compassion break on GGIA:

  • Say to yourself, “This is a moment of suffering.” This acknowledgment is a form of mindfulness—of simply noticing what is going on for you emotionally in the present moment, without judging that experience as good or bad. You can also say to yourself, “This hurts,” or “This is stress.” Use whatever statement feels most natural to you.

  • Next, say to yourself, “Suffering is a part of life.” This is a recognition of your common humanity with others—that all people have trying experiences, and these experiences give you something in common with the rest of humanity rather than mark you as abnormal or deficient. Other options for this statement include “Other people feel this way,” “I’m not alone,” or “We all struggle in our lives.”

  • Now, put your hands over your heart, feel the warmth of your hands and the gentle touch on your chest, and say, “May I be kind to myself.” This is a way to express self-kindness. You can also consider whether there is another specific phrase that would speak to you in that particular situation. Some examples: “May I give myself the compassion that I need,” “May I accept myself as I am,” “May I learn to accept myself as I am,” “May I forgive myself,” “May I be strong,” and “May I be patient.”

5. Looking back, slow down the timeline

The family holiday outing is over and you didn’t live up to your own expectations. You’re heading back to your own home and you’re remembering, with shame, how angrily you responded when your cousin made that remark about “those people trying to get in to our country.” Every year, the cousin says something you find offensive. This year you just snapped—and now you’re feeling the shame of your loss of control. How can you move beyond the shmear, and instead reappraise and soothe yourself?

I co-created an Atlas of Emotions, at the request of the Dalai Lama, to support people to develop an emotional vocabulary and understand how different feelings trigger different behaviors. For example, if someone is angry with you, that may lead you to feel your own anger—which leads to an argument. Or perhaps another person’s anger makes you feel disgusted—because they are the one losing control—and so you belittle them. You can also use the Atlas of Emotions to understand how feelings escalate, as when fear goes from trepidation to anxiety to desperation to horror.

After a regrettable episode, slow it down in your memory. Visualize the incident and create your own atlas to map the experience—you might even write it all out on paper. When you’ve done that, you can start asking yourself these questions:

  • What triggered it?

  • What did it feel like in your mind and body?

  • How did you react?

Take five minutes and simply free-write your answers to these questions. Next, map the episode, as in this example:

  • Trigger: Disagreeable political view, long history of cousin being annoying, general despair about political situation.

  • Experience: Whole face hot, thoughts racing with rage.

  • Response: No filter, snide remark, family members all chiming in on one side or the other, unpleasant end to holiday meal.

  • Post Episode Impact: Felt terrible going home, regret, shame, and self-criticism.

Don’t stop there. Go to the next step, which is to identify alternative strategies for dealing with the same trigger. For example:

  • Apply compassion for this experience: It was hard to feel this way and it is a normal human experience to have these emotions.

  • Reality check: We will always have emotions—that is not the problem. What you can do is improve the response.

  • Gently ask yourself: What are other strategies that could have worked? Make a list.

6. Forgive yourself and others

Resentment, regret, and shame can have very long tails, once we’ve returned to our regular lives. We might be back at work and still thinking about how we were totally misrepresented, not appreciated, or unseen in some crucial way. This can lead us to feeling resentful and blaming. Even if we are “right,” we can get stuck in this place, which is not a good place to be. It stresses us out, drains our energy, and prevents us from moving forward.

Forgiveness offers us an opportunity to clear our mind, start fresh, and remove the burden of these lingering emotions. “Forgiveness entails letting go of resentment or vengeance toward an offender and making peace with what happened so you can move on with your life,” we explain on Greater Good in Action. It doesn’t necessarily mean reconciling with that person”—and it doesn’t mean condoning hurtful actions.

The Greater Good in Action practice “Nine Steps to Forgiveness” lays out a process for letting go of the hurt. The first step involves naming the emotions involved and being able to describe the timeline of what happened, as in my own tips, above. Beyond that, consider taking these steps toward forgiveness:

  • Make a commitment to yourself to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and no one else.

  • Get the right perspective on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts, and physical upset you are suffering now, not from what hurt you two minutes—or 10 years—ago.

  • At the moment you feel upset, practice stress management to soothe your body’s fight-or-flight response. This could mean taking deep breaths, doing a mindful breathing exercise, taking a walk outside—whatever is most effective for you.

  • Give up expecting things from your life or from other people that they do not choose to give you. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, friendship, and prosperity, and work hard to get them. However, these are “unenforceable rules”: You will suffer when you demand that these things occur, since you do not have the power to make them happen.

  • Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you.

Hopefully these strategies will be helpful in practicing mindfulness of emotions for the holidays—but they can be applied with any of our difficult experiences. Shifting perspective in this way gives us an opportunity to really learn and gain from our “regrettable emotional episodes.” It can be helpful to keep in mind that our emotions were designed to help us function, not to get in our way, and we can gain insights from them even when we don’t like them.

Happy Holiday Shmear!

Words by Eve Ekman
Originally published on Greater Good
Science-Based Insights for a Meaningful Life