The words you use to describe the holiday define your experience of the holiday. It's true. If you say to yourself, "Oh no, here come the holidays with their stress and exhaustion and pseudo-nostalgic crap," well, that's exactly what you'll expect -- and experience. And while you may very well feel that way, choosing the words and thoughts with which you interface with the stress of this season can make a difference.
Stress isn't out there -- it's how you respond to stress that determines your experience. Thoughts and words are a critical part of that because they mirror how you interpret what's going on around you.
Let's look at the holiday even more directly. In the Christian nativity scene, Mary lovingly cradles a baby. In the story of Hanukkah, the miracle is the small bit lantern oil that burned on long after it should have gone out. For those who celebrate the winter solstice, the core moment is the return of the sun after the longest night of the year.
I see tenderness at the heart of all these stories. They speak to our shared need to appreciate and care for one another and our communities in small, selfless, quiet ways. And this season offers us a chance to express that tender impulse consciously, in word and deed, to ourselves and others.
Here are three ways to shift your thoughts and your words this season:
Change your words. The key to shifting from a stressed and fearful state of mind to one of kindness and ease starts with a move from resistance to openness. Once you stop resisting, pushing away, tightening up under holiday stress, the more you can receive all the good stuff it has to offer. Notice what words you're using to describe or define your holiday and start replacing them, one at a time, to something a little less fraught.
Take me, for example. I like the holiday bustle. Even the word bustle calls to mind a different experience than, say, the word "chaos." Bustle is fast and busy, but it's also fun and happening. Yes, the prospect of hitting the mall and spending a lot of money can feel like a slog -- but if you thought of it as an opportunity to find great stuff? To treasure hunt? Different experience.
Speak kindly. This is a direct and simple way to change someone's day, not to mention your own. You don't have to pile on the compliments -- just the way in which you talk to someone (mindfully, gently) matters. Looking someone in the eye, touching his arm, asking if you can help -- these things go a long way.
Doing so is a tonic for holiday craziness, but that's not all. Andrew Shatte, Ph.D., one of meQuilibrium's co-founders, has discovered in his research that those who create loving connection in their lives feel more confident and secure about their lives. Connection is a key aspect of resilience, the stress-busting ability to bounce back from difficulty and continue on with peace and strength -- at work, at home, at the holiday dinner table, at the department store. Read more about the importance of resilience.)
Let your listening speak for you. There is perhaps no kinder act than to listen, really listen, to another person. It's more than being quiet while another talks. When you listen, you create emotional space for that person to be vulnerable, to explore his ideas, to be himself without self-consciousness. Whether the listening last for a moment or an hour, your silent, aware presence is indeed speech that communicates empathy, kindness and love.
Try this: Listening takes both concentration and a light touch. Keep your breathing slow and even. Settle into a comfortable position, if possible, with your body turned slightly toward the person talking. Do your best not to offer solutions or soften painful emotions -- your job is simply to hold the attention.
Say those three little words (plus two more). Saying "I love you" -- whether to your spouse, a friend, your kids -- is a bona fide mood lifter and stress reducer. When you speak kindly this way, you infuse another person with your positive emotion and let him or her feel loved, cared for, and appreciated. When you find a way to say "thank you," too, you increase your optimism, immunity, and ability to stay calm. With both, you shift your thoughts and attention toward the positive instead of the negative, from the small things to the ones that matter.
Try this: Leave love or thank-you notes in unexpected places -- a sticky note on the bathroom window, a text message just before lunch, a card that you actually put in the mailbox and send -- maybe even to the office.
Shift your self talk. The holidays (and life in general) are a lot tougher when you scald yourself every day with critical self-talk. Extending kind thoughts to yourself can actually help you let go of anger and resentment, which in turns makes it easier to speak kindly and compassionately to others.
Try this: When you catch yourself starting another round of "I suck," take a breath and note the emotions that accompany the thought. Pay attention to your body to see where the emotions show up. You don't have to reason or rationalize the thoughts or feelings away -- just acknowledge and accept them for what they are.
Now imagine you were with a friend who was berating herself. What would you say to her? How would you comfort her? Use that same tone and language to turn the hate-filled words to gentle affirmation.
"Whenever one speaks kindly to another his face brightens and his heart is warmed," wrote a 13th century Buddhist teacher. "Tenderness can have a revolutionary impact upon the mind of man." That's a holiday gift everyone can use.