As the holidays approach, I can hear and feel the anxiety levels rising in my clients, friends, and family. The holidays can be a time for gratitude, family gatherings, parties, and my personal favorite, lots of good food. But the holidays are also a triggering time of the year for a lot of people. And the main thing I tend to hear about from my clients are those well-meaning, personal, cringe worthy questions that everyone in the family seems to bust out right before dinner.
With my specialty in infertility counseling, I hear about so many uncomfortable and unpleasant situations that start with questions about when they are having kids and why it hasn’t happened yet, and worst of all whose fault it is. But honestly, I hear these stories from almost every single one of my clients, those going through divorce, couples having relationship struggles, new parents who are just happy to have showered today, people dealing with chronic illness, anyone going through something difficult and painful (so isn’t that everyone really?). I often spend a few sessions preparing clients for holiday events and encourage my couples to come up with a code or agreed upon phrase that will signal to their partner they need extra support to get through an overwhelming situation. Notice I didn’t say to avoid, escape, sugarcoat, or lie, which I’ve noticed people tend to do.
Why Do These Questions Bother You?
I also think it’s important to ask yourself why these questions are bothersome, and why we have the desire to avoid them. I’ve been there myself too, frozen or immediately anxiety ridden when that hard question comes at me and I don’t know how to answer it. It’s pretty easy to put the blame on the question asker, because how dare they ask such an insensitive and invasive question? In reality, there’s probably some truth to the idea that the other person isn’t aware of your pain, doesn’t have good boundaries, doesn’t care about your feelings, or is completely aloof. I think it’s imperative at that moment, you shift the focus from why or what the question is to yourself and what’s going on for you. Try to lean into the pain that comes up, because it can be very damaging to you if you don’t.
Typically, the difficult questions are asked, we aren’t ready to talk about it, we feel anxious, and we shut down the conversation by saying “everything’s fine”, avoiding the question, changing the subject, or flat out lying. These can be effective strategies…in the short term. But when we do this, we shut down any opportunity to be vulnerable with ourselves and others, and we’ve begun the process of burying our emotions and building up guards to protect ourselves. This process can have major effects down the road, or even 30 minutes later if someone says the wrong thing at dinner and there’s an explosion or misplaced anger (this one happened to me, I’ll write about that another time).
Transparency and Honesty
What I’ve found helps clients the most is preparing for going into these events and having an understanding of what questions may be asked, and then thinking about how to respond using my mantra “Transparent but Vague”. Don’t bury or avoid or sugarcoat because that’s not being clear or honest with yourself and enhances and feeds uncomfortable emotions such as guilt and shame. Instead find ways to be transparent and forthcoming about how you’re feeling. For example, if you’re undergoing infertility treatments, it’s ok to say you’re having difficulty getting pregnant or you’re struggling with how hard the process has been. If you’re having relationship troubles you can be honest that things have been rough and you’re working hard to repair the relationship. You can say you’re having trouble figuring out how to take care of yourself and that you’ve trying to focus on discovering what you need and that’s why you’ve pulled back, but that you appreciate the support. I hope you’ll notice that these examples are very simple, short, and really to the point of your pain instead of long, drawn out, and beating around the bush of what’s actually going on.
So here comes the “vague” part. You don’t have to, nor do you need to in my opinion, give everyone all the nitty gritty details of what you’re going through at Thanksgiving dinner or a Christmas cocktail party. Spending time and energy describing every appointment, all the medical treatments, every divorce proceeding, or detailing a fight you had yesterday is not going to put you in the best place, it’s not setting up the other person for success in providing support, and you’re at risk to be misunderstood and not validated. When we feel like the other person doesn’t understand us or doesn’t give our emotions any consideration or value, it’s easy to put the blame on someone else and redirect all the feelings we don’t actually want to experience and place them on the person standing in front of us who is saying all the wrong things. It’s truly a distraction from experiencing and processing our own feelings, again shutting down vulnerability and keeping you stuck.
You are not obligated to give details, and no one is entitled to knowing any information you’re not ready or willing to share. You owe no explanation, you can voice a need, you do not have to engage right at that moment. I’m not saying to never have in depth conversations or dive deeply into these issues, sometimes we need to vent and go through the details. I’m just saying Thanksgiving dinner with your aunt may not be the best place and time to do that and preparing for that and using this mantra can help you get through these anxiety provoking situations easier.
So What Does it Look Like?
“It’s been more difficult than we expected to get pregnant and that’s been hard on us, but we’re starting the process to figure things out.” Transparent but vague.
“There’s been unexpected struggles since I got divorced and I don’t always know how to deal with it, but I’m working on reaching out to people for support when I need it.” Transparent but vague.
“We’ve been dealing with a lot lately and this is a difficult season in our marriage. We’ve seen we have to learn to be more open with each other.” Transparent but vague.
“I’m struggling with being a new mom. I didn’t know it would be this hard.” Transparent but vague.
“I need help. I’m not ready to talk about it right now, but I’d love to have lunch next week and tell you more about it then.” Transparent but vague.
Be honest. Be kind. Be transparent. Be vague. It’s all ok, and you will be too.
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If you’re struggling with relationship issues, conflict, infertility, postpartum depression/anxiety, becoming new parents, perfectionism, or not feeling good enough, I’m here to help. I love working with clients not only to get through difficult moments in time, like the holidays, but to address all the underlying stuff that contributes to your pain. I want to help you get past it so you can feel better and live a more meaningful life. My office is located in League City and I also provide online therapy in the State of Texas. Give me a call at (832) 827-3288 for a free 15 minute phone consultation to see if we’re a good fit.