Mindfulness to Improve Family Dynamics – How to Create Harmony Around the Table This Thanksgiving
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By Sharon Brock
Thanksgiving is only a few of weeks away and due to the pandemic, many of us haven’t seen our family members in months, perhaps years. With so much polarization around the vaccine and politics, frustration and resentment may have built up over time, causing some anxiety around how Thanksgiving dinner is going to play out this year.
Luckily, there are tools of “relational mindfulness” that can help. Mindfulness practices help reduce anticipatory anxiety, soften our perfectionism, as well as allow us to communicate in a way that promotes harmony.
Mindfulness Reduces Anticipatory Anxiety
For those of us who tend to worry, the mind shifts into worst-case-scenario thinking at the drop of a hat. Just a few days before Thanksgiving, the “what if…?” part of the mind can go into overdrive, visualizing everything from overcooking the turkey to full-blown arguments among family members.
Mindfulness offers a refuge for the worrying mind. When we observe these anxious thoughts from a neutral place, we get some perspective. It’s important to remember when you are in a state of overthinking that all you need to do is take a deep breath, observe your thoughts and emotions, and acknowledge them for what they actually are—energies that come and go and are part of this “what if…?” software of the mind. Having some perspective on your own thoughts and emotions will help you to feel calm and grounded.
Releasing the Attachment to Perfection
Regardless of the holiday advertising that is everywhere right now, let’s face it, our Thanksgiving is not going to be perfect. The meal won’t be perfect, the house won’t be perfect, the conversations (especially!) won’t be perfect. One definition of mindfulness is the willingness to be okay with what is, rather than constantly wishing things were different. This perfectionism of appearances causes so much unnecessary stress, but mindfulness can help us to soften our expectations and shift our minds into the present moment.
Thanksgiving is about gratitude, after all. It’s impossible to be both anxious (or angry) and grateful at the same time. Mindfulness can help us release worry about the future as well as resentment about the past, in order to feel sincerely thankful for what is happening here and now.
Working with Emotions around Family Members with Different Perspectives
We have prepared the food, now let’s prepare our minds. As you’re getting ready for your family gathering, you know that a certain family member is going to push your buttons. Doing a 20-minute mindfulness practice before heading over to the gathering can help dissolve frustration and resentment, allowing you to arrive in a more peaceful state of mind.
When working with a challenging relationship, I recommend doing the mindfulness practice of equanimity, which encourages us to accept this family member just as they are. It’s important to remember that acceptance does not mean that you condone their perspective. It just means that we no longer have resistance to their way of being—and when we release resistance, we diffuse the charge of our anger and we are more even-keeled.
The equanimity mindfulness practice involves repeating the mantra, “They are as they are; may I accept them just as they are.” As we release the grip of anger and cultivate the energy of acceptance, our brain activity shifts from our amygdala (the site of fight or flight) to our pre-frontal cortex (the site of wisdom and reasoning), which allows us to have those challenging conversations over the dinner table with more ease and grace.
Speaking Your Truth, Effectively
Many people think that there are only two ways to handle strong emotions: lash out or shut down. Mindfulness offers a third option. Let’s say you are at the dinner table and your family member says something that triggers a surge of anger. Rather than make a contentious comment or shove your anger down, you can take deep breaths, observe the anger energy in your body, and then continue to take conscious breaths until your mind and body begin to settle—and then contribute to the conversation, from a calm mental state.
It’s important to remember that when we are operating from our pre-frontal cortex and no longer “fired up”, that doesn’t mean that we just sit back and not say anything. It means that we are able to communicate from a place of reasoning rather than a place of upset. With this on-the-spot mindfulness practice, you’re able to respond rather than react during this tough conversation, and your communication will more likely be heard and received.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg conveyed this idea perfectly with both of these quotes:
“Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”
“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
Mindfulness can help us learn these communication skills that Ginsberg is referring to in these quotes.
Happy Holidays with Mindfulness
Even though we can’t choose our family, we can choose our mindset. By learning the tools of mindfulness, we can arrive at our family gatherings with less anxiety and tension, and more ease and confidence that we will be able to handle potential challenges with grace and communicate in a harmonious way. Mindfulness helps us to soften resentments about the past, orient our minds toward joy, and interact with family members with more openness and curiosity. From this place of acceptance, our guards naturally come down and we may discover something new about our family members, become inspired, and feel a sense of connection. Mindfulness offers the opportunity for family relationships to repair and begin anew, making it a tool to experience more peace and joy this holiday season.
To learn the specific mindfulness practices shared in this blog, join my Free Masterclass “Mindfulness for Challenging Family Dynamics” on Tuesday, November 16th, 6-7 PM PST. I hope you’ll join us!
Sharon Brock is a breast cancer survivor and a certified Mindfulness Facilitator trained at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. She is also a health-and-wellness journalist with a master’s degree from Columbia University. Sharon teaches mindfulness courses online, at corporations and studios, and with private clients as a mindfulness coach.