Terrible gifts, family dynamics and all that alcohol. Is it any wonder Christmas is fraught with ups, downs and the odd blazing row? Here’s a tool kit from the UK’s top relationship experts to help you – and your emotions – sail through.
Susanna Abse, is a psychotherapist and director the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships
Linda Blair is a psychologist and cognitive therapist and author of Straight Talking (Piatkus, £8.99)
Glenn Harrold is a clinical hypnotherapist
Georgia Foster is a clinical hypnotherapist and author of The Drink Less Mind (Foster, £17.99)
PROBLEM #1 : I’m worried about all the weight I am going to gain
‘Weight guilt at Christmas is common,’ says Georgia Foster. ‘Relatives make comments about how we’re looking and food comes with the expectation to eat everything you’re given. After a big meal or two negative self-talk sets in: ‘Oh I’ve binged now, I’m a hopeless mess, I might as well keep eating.’
Emotional first-aid Take breathing breaks. ‘Sit quietly and take one long breath counting slowly to five. Hold for five then exhale for five. Repeat three times,’ advises Foster. ‘Slowing your breath will help your logical mind take over and the panic to subside. Tell yourself: ‘One eating experience does not infect the next.’ Repeat that to yourself ten times – then go join the party. The most common mistake people make in overeating is assuming one big meal has ‘blown it’ so they might as well make it an eating marathon.
Long –term fix Forget perfection. As Christmas approaches say to yourself, ‘I’m not going to force myself to under-eat or diet because I am entitled to let go a little’,’ advises Foster. ‘After you’ve indulged, remind yourself that each eating experience is separate from the last and that come January you’ll be back to making healthier choices. No-one ever got fat from having a few cheap chocolates or an extra helping of mash but if you carry on bingeing for weeks that’s when weight can creep on.’
PROBLEM #2 : I am in a major money panic
What’s going on? Whether it’s with ourselves or those we love, panic is an alarm bell, says Robert Holden, it’s our emotions way of telling us something needs to change. ‘The ‘positive thinking’ movement has encouraged us to ignore our negative emotions, but listening to them is crucial if we want to fix them.
Emotional first-aid Georgia Foster suggests taking the breathing break explained above. ‘That will help you get through the panic until you can come up with a practical solution after the festivities.’
Long –term fix Think of panic and unhappiness as an internal memo, suggests Robert Holden. ‘Most people want to shift panic without looking at it. But putting a positive thought over an unhappy one is like a sticking plaster, and doesn’t look at what is causing the unhappiness. Imagine the panic could send you an email. Yours might say ‘I need to consolidate my debts’. Robert Holden’s book, Be Happy (Hay House, £10.99) contains specific techniques for facing (and fixing) negative feelings.
PROBLEM #3 : My family don’t get on with my new partner
What’s going on? ‘New couples can find their relationship attacked at Christmas,’ says Susanna Abse. ‘Families come with ingrained rules and roles highlighted at this time. Before you’re married or in the early stages of marriage, you haven’t set up your own rules and roles yet, so your parents and siblings still feel you belong to theirs. Bringing your boyfriend into this culture can upset that balance and leave families feeling jealous or threatened. Your sense of divided loyalty is understandable.’
Emotional first-aid Don’t engage their criticism. ‘If your mum or sister attack your boyfriend, fighting his corner only leads to arguments. Try gently dismissing their claim – ‘That’s how it looks to you but actually it’s nothing to do with you.’ That quietly says, ‘You’re overstepping the mark. I love this guy and you don’t have the authority to make those judgements.’ Take regular time alone with your boyfriend – even if it’s only a walk to the park or the pub. Such gestures show, rather than tell, your relatives that your primary family is no longer them, it’s your partner.’
Long –term fix Set family boundaries. ‘If you’re serious about this guy, make it continuously clear that you and he are a solid unit and that your partner and your own life now takes precedence,’ says Abse. ‘That’s painful for families, so use subtle, sensitive signs not bullish words or behaviour. All couples have ‘issues’ they need to work on but if you have a wonderful relationship most of the time, it’s essential that you re-assert yourself and your boyfriend’s new role as a unit within your family. Make a point to never engage them in criticism of him and when there are gatherings planned always ensure he is invited and made to feel welcome. Over time, your family will see they have no choice but to accept your relationship for exactly what it is.’
PROBLEM #4 : I can’t help getting really drunk at parties
What’s going on? ‘Most of us are quite socially shy and that can lead us to drink too much,’ says Georgia Foster. ‘A glass of wine helps us feel more confident, we like that feeling – who doesn’t? – and so we keep drinking, get drunk and feel guilty the next day. Plus, it takes a while for alcohol’s effects to hit our system, so it’s easy to get carried away in the festivities and find yourself snogging Nick from the postroom come midnight.’
Emotional first-aid Be practical. ‘Alternate one wine with one water, put your drink down between sips and don’t let people top up your glass until it’s empty,’ says Linda Blair. ‘Then create some social pressure for yourself by enlisting a drinks buddy. Pick a friend you feel comfortable admitting weakness to and tell them you’re determined not to get drunk and make an idiot of yourself this year. Agree on a three drink rule. If you ignore her reminders after a couple of chablis and go on to your usual 12 glasses, apologise the next day and agree a smaller number for the next party. Behavioural changes come with trial and error and may need some adjusting before you get it right.’
Long–term fix Try choice anchoring, a self-hypnosis technique to help you stick to your three drink rule. ‘The secret ingredient for making choices stick is visualisation’, says Glenn Harrold. ‘When you visualise, your unconscious mind doesn’t distinguish between what is real and imagined. Try this exercise, three times a week. Start by lying quietly. Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply, allowing your mind to go blank. Now, imagine yourself making the healthy drinking choice you’ve planned. Imagine yourself having the choice to drink that fourth glass of wine but happily choosing mineral water. Now visualise how it feels, smells and sounds to make that choice – and how much better you will feel in the morning! When the picture is crystal clear, pinch the skin on the back of your hand. That’s a choice anchor. Now, everytime you feel the need to drink too much at a party, pinch the back of your hand and remember the positive feelings associated with making a choice to stop’. The Drink Less Mind by Georgia Foster is a self-help programme that comes with a hypnotherapy CD to help social drinkers that feel out of control.
PROBLEM #5 : ‘I can’t stand my stepmother and my dad is always pushing us to get on so I get upset with him’
What’s going on? ‘Your father needs to justify his remarriage – maybe he secretly regrets it, maybe he feels guilty, we don’t know,’ says Linda Blair. ‘What we do know is he needs you to think he is happy and for you to be accepting of your stepmother. Your father is not going to change, but how you behave can’.
Emotional first-aid Listen, don’t comment. ‘If your dad pushes you to do something with her, avoid challenging him,’ says Blair. ‘Let him speak and then keep changing to another subject. Sometimes, when certain relationships have been running in the same pattern for years people get used to the reactions they have always received and that can become their reason behind their comments or behaviours, long after the original upset has passed. When you don’t react in the way he is used to you reacting, he will stop’.
Long –term fix Practice ‘Shielding.’ ‘This is a self-hypnosis technique that works in situations that typically upset you, especially those you can’t change, where it’s best to not respond – like families,’ says Georgia Foster. ‘Imagine a shield around you that is protecting you and keeping you safe, like an invisible buffer zone between yourself and the difficult situation or person. When you hear the argumentative tone or comment, don’t respond in any way but simply repeat to yourself, ‘this is nothing to do with me’. Smile and change the subject. Over time you will become adept at shielding and begin to really look like the comments are bouncing off you, especially in your body language. It works on families, bosses – anywhere a repetitive pattern of behaviour has developed that upsets you. When they no longer get the old reactions out of you, people’s old patterns of behaviour will run out of steam too and you can both move forward.’
PROBLEM #6 : My husband buys rubbish gifts
What’s going on? ‘If we grew up with magic and surprises every Christmas and birthday it’s easy to unwittingly take that expectation into adulthood,’ says Susannah Abse. ‘But men don’t have an intuitive understanding of exactly what other people – especially their partners – would like to receive the way most women do, or the way your mummy and daddy did when you were six. Most get it wrong at Christmas and we begrudge them for it’.
Emotional first-aid Diffuse the situation. When you rip off the wrapper and find it’s a pink polyester bath robe instead of Agent Provocatuer’s finest, hold back your inner bitch, says Glenn Harrold. ‘Do something to stop the emotion of disappointment overwhelming you and leading to a nasty comment and subsequent argument that could sour the whole day’. It is after all, still only Christmas morning. ‘Try Disassociation,’ says Harrold. ‘It’s a self-hypnosis technique to help people to not react in tense situations. Detach yourself from the scene by imagining you’re viewing it from above. Yes, the present is pretty awful, but does it really, really matter when you take a different perspective?’ Alternatively, one of the best tension diffusers is to laugh, says Linda Blair. ‘Try, ‘Oh honey, I didn’t even know I wanted this.’ Once the situation has passed argument-free, it will be easier to help him get it right next year as he won’t be on the defensive’.
Long –term fix Give him a choice – from what you want. ‘My advice is to let it go this year. In October next year, give him a list of ten things you would like,’ says Blair. ‘Of course, this takes some romance out, but it ensures he’ll get closer to getting it right. The alternative remember, is to let him buy what he wants and be happy with your new vacuum cleaner. Give him ten choices and specify brand, size, colour. It sounds prescriptive but by giving him a choice of ten things you’re actually giving him back power over the situation because he is making his own choice.’ On a deeper level, ‘No marriage is perfect and we encounter little disappointments like this one all the time’, says Susanna Abse. ‘It’s important to remind ourselves of the things we love about him – he might be terrible at choosing presents but he might also take the garbage out, make you laugh everyday and be fantastic in bed’.
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