This time of year is full of social gatherings – family meals, holiday parties, work parties, New Year’s parties, etc. It can be a very challenging time of year for people for various reasons, including anxieties surrounding social engagements. People find themselves “forced” to interact with coworkers, family members, friends, and strangers in a myriad of potentially uncomfortable social situations. I often hear people in therapy (and outside of therapy) discuss their dread at having to attend certain gatherings and engage with people who they find to be condescending, inappropriate, awkward, overwhelming, or in some other way negative to be around.
It would be impossible to address (much less help change) in this article all the many reasons why people feel negative emotions regarding social engagements this time of year. However, I hope to bring your attention to the main area you can control within all the potential holiday chaos, which is your internal relationship with someone or something. I spoke in a prior blog post about self-fulfilling prophecies and how our internal narrative about someone else can actually create and maintain a negative relationship with them without us realizing it. Now, as an aside, I recognize that there are individuals in many people’s lives that have caused considerable pain and distress and it can be very hard to be around them and not feel a myriad of negative emotions. What I am advocating though, is an assessment of how you talk to yourself about a situation (e.g., family meal, work party) or a relationship (e.g., “Aunt Jane is such a mean person, she never has anything nice to say.”). Even something as simple as “I really don’t want to go to this party, it is going to be so boring, awkward, etc…” can create such a negative internal relationship with that event that it becomes hard for it to play out otherwise.
If you are going to be attending an event/party, why not spend some energy shifting your narrative and self-talk about it? Each situation or interaction provides an opportunity to overcome a fear, connect to a new person, improve a relationship, or learn something new. Even seemingly mundane thoughts such as “I am so awkward” or “Tom is so weird” can be unhelpful labels that only serve to reinforce negative interactional patterns. You certainly don’t have to spend 20 minutes talking with that cousin who demeans your interests and boasts about their accomplishments, but you also don’t have to spend 24 hours before a holiday family gathering creating and reinforcing anxieties about what could happen, who might say something negative, or whether you might say the “wrong thing” in a conversation. We all have completely subjective, unique relationships with ourselves and others that are worth evaluating and shifting, especially if they create distress and negativity within us. Let other peoples’ emotions and dysfunctions be their own, and you focus on loving/accepting yourself and maintaining an internal peacefulness and stillness regardless of external circumstances. Easier said than done, I know, and it is a process that must be practiced, but at least you are not reliant on others to change in order to feel comfortable, positive, or happy. Uncle John and Aunt Jane might still have an overly impassioned political discussion at dinner, but you will be less prone to being emotionally hijacked by it.