Is this time of year hard for you when it comes to your struggle?
You would think all of the focus on gratitude and Jesus coming to earth would make it less likely for us to struggle. But that’s just not how it works.
It’s important to remember that your struggle does not start when you pick up your phone or log on to your computer.
It starts before that, and it can seem so much worse this time of year. Why?
Well, if you’re in school, you are finishing up exams (hello, stress) followed by free time. If you are away from home, you’re coming back to family (and all the crazy that comes with that).
No matter what season of life you are in, this season of the year has a way of shaking and rattling and rocking everything all around.
You were content being single until your best friend just got engaged on a horse-drawn carriage ride through New York City.
You were managing life just fine until you had to travel 20 hours with three screaming kids to get to your in-laws house.
The finances were fine until the Christmas gifts and the year end fundraisers and now you’re back in the red.
You thought you were doing pretty well this year until you look back at last year’s new year’s resolutions and realize you missed them all.
Tis the season to be jolly… and completely stressed out.
All of that fluctuation and change and stress can leave us desperate for comfort. We search for familiarity.
It’s like when my daughter gets overwhelmed and cries out for her blankie and a hug. It also reminds me of my time spent in the Philippines. I was alone, on the other side of the world, in an unfamiliar country and where did I go time and time again? McDonalds. I don’t even like McDonalds and the McDonalds in the Philippines aren’t even the same as the ones in the US. The ones in the Philippines serve spaghetti and fried chicken. Still, I went, because there was something familiar, known, and comforting about it. It felt like home.
If we are not careful, that grappling for the familiar can lead us down familiar roads to all-too-familiar problems.
So, this holiday season, here’s your strategy.
First, know your triggers. What sets you off?
You might not (probably can’t) avoid it, but if you know what it is going in, you can identify it and keep it from knocking you over. To use a football analogy (because… football), if I see someone coming to tackle me, I can avoid it, or brace myself. I can do something. But if I’m not paying attention, I won’t be prepared and I’ll get knocked over.
The Bible warns us to be sober and vigilant (1 Peter 5:8). In other words, we need to pay attention. Ignorance is not freedom, my friends.
Second, know your boundaries. Where do you need to draw the line?
Your boundaries protect your triggers. Think of a boundary as a way of “fencing in” your triggers. They work both ways.
On one hand, you can try to protect a trigger. “I know I am weak when I am tired, so I am going to go to bed early.” Your boundary is trying to keep that trigger from being set off.
On the other hand, for triggers that are inevitable (family drama, anyone?), a boundary can help prevent acting on that trigger. It contains it. It fences you in. While my family may stress me out, if I don’t bring my tablet with me to their house, I am less likely to react to that stress by watching pornography.
Look at your typical “fall pattern.” Where does it start and how does it progress? If you want to experience freedom this holiday season, you want to disrupt that temptation circuit as much as you possibly can. Break connections. Compartmentalize. Build all the fences.
Lastly, walk in with a battle plan. What are you going to do about it?
Football again, but you know how they do the board with the Xs and Os and arrows and wild hand motions? That. You need that. You need a playbook. A toolkit. A strategy that strengthens you against your triggers.
One thing that has helped me as a parent is giving my daughter a heads up. I don’t know if she inherited my anxiety or if I am just as anxious as a two-year-old, but we both do so much better when we know what is coming.
We recently had her first dental appointment and for days, I practiced with her. I have extreme dental anxiety as the result of several botched dental procedures and my mouth’s apparent resistance to local anesthetic. Last year I nearly blacked out during a dental appointment. I am intent on not passing on my anxiety to my daughter.
So, days before her first appointment, I started telling her about it. I said, “Ok, we’re going to go to the dentist and they’re going to look at your teeth and you’ll say ‘Ahhhhhh’ and they’ll look in there, and they will brush brush brush and then you’ll be all done! And then we will go get a special drink with momma.” It helped her immensely. The staff was shocked because she didn’t cry or scream or fight. She opened her mouth and let them brush brush brush. She knew what was coming next and still looks forward to her “special drink with momma” every time we even drive by the dentist’s office.
When we know what’s coming next, it helps us feel less like we’re drowning and desperate. It diffuses our triggers in a way and makes us feel less helpless.
Control what you can this holiday season- you.
Instead of just letting triggers and emotions dictate how this is going to look, have a plan. Here are some examples.
Your family has lots of drama (trigger) and you are going to be with them this holiday season (unavoidable trigger). Your great aunt Sue always asks you why you’re single (sweet, but a trigger nonetheless) and your mom always offers to host even though it completely stresses her out and she’s going to be freaking out and high strung and you’re probably going to get roped into helping.
You can’t do much about the drama. You can’t do much about great aunt Sue. You can’t control your mom’s apparent need to serve, but here’s what you can do. You can acknowledge that this dinner may be stressful and plan to diffuse that stress with a run afterward. You can also, if you want, choose to try to mitigate some of that stress by volunteering ahead of time to do something you enjoy to help with dinner.
Every year, your roommates take a weekend to binge-watch the holiday romance movies. It’s fun, you’ll admit, and you don’t want to be alone (trigger) but you also know that watching these movies is a trigger for you.
Don’t wait for them to ask. Just tell them that you don’t plan on watching the movies with them. Instead, suggest that you guys have a fun dinner or brunch first (helping to combat the feeling of loneliness and any sort of shame you may feel), then make plans with a different friend during the movie watching time. Based on what you know about then, practice how you will say no and hold that boundary. Never apologize for your boundaries.
“I’m sorry I cannot watch movies with you” gives the impression that there is something wrong with you for not being able to watch movies. It implies that this is an expectation from them and you are failing to meet it. It’s a shame narrative.
Instead, “I know this is something you guys look forward to and it is so much fun hanging out with you guys. I have just decided not to watch all the movies this year. I still want to hang out with you though, so let’s do a brunch or something before.”
Do you see the difference?
It seems like such a small shift, but I’ve found owning your need for a boundary instead of apologizing for it is helpful in finding freedom.
You and your husband take turns visiting each other’s families each year. His family is further away and you just had your third child. Traveling with the kids is always stressful to begin with and creates tension in your marriage and family. Add to it staying at your overbearing in-laws and you already know you’re going to be battling the temptation to lock yourself away in the bathroom with your phone just to escape the crazy.
Talk to your husband before the trip. You guys are a team. You fight this together.
Brainstorm together ways that you can alleviate the stress and tension traveling itself causes. Maybe you need to break the trip up more. Maybe you need to make it a little longer so there isn’t as much urgency. Share how you feel about staying with your in-laws and discuss the need to have a “safe space” for you that is off-limits to your in-laws during this time (even though it’s their house), or staying in a hotel nearby so you have that comfort- especially if feeling trapped or overwhelmed is a trigger.
Discuss beforehand topics that are off-limits to discussion and how you will handle when the in-laws try to parent your kids. Then, make a personal decision to leave the phone outside of your room or in your purse for the duration of your time there so you are less tempted to turn to it. Pack clothes to be able to go for walks with the kids and plan to do so daily. Plan a date night with just you and your husband so you can stay connected. Put a friend on speed dial who you can reach out to if things start to go south.
We get into trouble when we try to fix things we cannot fix. You cannot fix your family’s stress. You cannot fix the fact that your exams at school are over. You cannot fix the fact that your coworkers are being inappropriate at the office Christmas party.
But you can control you.
When temptation and sin are mentioned in the Bible, the onus is almost always on us. We can’t blame our families or the movies, or the world for our own decisions to disobey God’s intent. The choice is always ours.
As you walk through this holiday season, know your triggers, know your boundaries, and know your way out.
No temptation has overtaken you except something common to mankind; and God is faithful, so He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it. – 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NASB)