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October 25, 2017

Learn From My Mistakes: Enjoying the Stress Filled Holidays in 4 Easy Steps

Below are my reflections from 2015 and 2016 holiday season. 2017 I’m working to bring a lot more compassion and gratitude to the holiday. And if you’re in the Denver/Aurora, Colorado area, you can join me (more information here).

I glared at the pumpkin pies. Fresh from the oven, shriveled, salty, burnt, pathetic. Here I was again.

In 2015, I spent Thanksgiving morning crying in the kitchen, surrounded by ruined piles of limp broccoli and grumbling to my family to GET YOUR SHOES ON, WE NEED TO GO. I spent the day running late to each event, skipping to the next to-do, as annoyed about the cliché of my harried presence as my own inability to pause and feel thankful, the one damn thing I was supposed to feel on that day.

In 2015, I was awake for one shining moment. Driving home that night, snow began drifting down, glittering in the street lights. My husband rolled down the windows so my daughter could catch snowflakes on her tongue. Between my exhaustion and relief that the day was done, we rolled on silent streets. The snowflakes floating between the seats, we all sat back in contented silence, and I finally felt the magic of this tiny moment and the presence of the two people I was most thankful for, the two I hadn’t really seen or savored most of the day.

In 2016, I promised myself it would be different. I made plans, oh the plans! Calendar reminders pinged at me for 60 days: October 1 ‘schedule cleaner for week before Thanksgiving and Christmas’; October 15 ‘plan birthday party, send invites, order cake’; November 1 ‘plan do-ahead  Thanksgiving menu’; November 10 ‘make and freeze dinner rolls, chop and freeze all garlic, onions, celery’. And on and on.

As the narrator looking back, I will tell you this is where I should have paused, tilted my head to the side, and questioned that small insistent voice that urged me forward. ‘Plan, do, make, plan, organize, control’ because the unspoken promise I made myself was that I would not feel the stress and sadness and worry and anger and annoyance and incompetence that I felt last Thanksgiving, if ONLY I planned appropriately.  You see where we’re going right?

Well I definitely didn’t see where I was going. And I did a good job ignoring the hints, even as they got louder and louder. The stomach knots, the tense shoulders, the barking laugh when my husband wandered into the kitchen and said ‘this is so relaxing isn’t it?’ And finally, fighting back tears, glaring at pumpkin pies that were missing two cups of sugar and all I could think was ‘here I am again, we’re an hour late and I’m screwing it all up again.’ Ah ha. There it was.

The pure, unfiltered story I held for myself, the one that didn’t serve me. So I nudged myself to do the same things I teach. A simple word, a simple acronym RAIN: recognize, allow, investigate, nourish.


I recognized I was lost in mindlessness. Lost in memories of failed holidays of the past and troubled predictions of the ways I would do the same thing again. I was in ‘doing’ mind, not ‘being’ mind. I wasn’t fully aware and awake to this simple moment. If I had been, I would have seen my daughter staring up at me with a worried, wrinkled brow. I would have heard my favorite carol on the stereo. My heart rate would have slowed, my breath expanding.

2. Allow: 

And as I began to allow myself to observe my own experience without pushing away, I did begin to calm. Allow myself to breathe, pause, watch my own emotions. The sadness that we were so far away from family, the disappointment I wasn’t on time and our friends were waiting. The anger at myself and my husband, that I did this all by myself and that I had only myself to blame for not asking for help and painting us into the responsibility and blame corner. The sorrow that I was here again in this place of stress, that I couldn’t control my emotions…but ah ha…

3. Investigate: 

I can’t control my emotions. Cognitively I know emotions pop up and we experience them, we interact with them, and I could no more stop sadness than I could force myself to be happy. Instead of pushing those feelings away, what if I just sat in them for second? Again and from a place of kind attention. I could ask myself:

What is the story? When I do an honest inventory of my heart, my story is that I feel a need to make the holidays wonderful for my family to prove I am good enough. I need to make all the food and win at parenting by being calm and loving and together and making this the best time of the year for my daughter.

How long have you held that story? All my life in some form, more so since my daughter was born.

How has it impacted you? I don’t give myself credit for the things I do. I don’t enjoy the parts that I created and love, because I am aiming for perfection. And there is no perfection. So I’m always falling short.

What would your life look like if this story wasn’t true? Ouch. That stings. If the story ‘Kerry needs to make the holidays perfect’ wasn’t true, I would be thrilled that I made pies with my daughter. I would eat up a full day of friends and good food and no responsibilities. I would shoot off a quick ‘sorry, late again, you know the drill’ text to my friends – like every other day- then not give it another thought. And that’s when it came to me. What if, this Thanksgiving, my mantra was ‘pretend this it is not Thanksgiving, pretend it is a normal day.’

4. Nourish: 

In this step, you nurture the part of you that is hurting. The unmet need, the struggle, the story. Sometimes it’s the most important piece, sometimes it’s a light touch. So I smiled at myself, I rolled my eyes that I fell into my annual pothole. And I picked myself up and tried something new.

I tried pretending it was a normal day. We were an hour late to dinner, and yet right on time. The pumpkin pies were truly horrible. And we all laughed and I kissed my husband for earnestly insisting they were great. And when all the normal things happened, when the kids cried because they didn’t want to say goodbye and the cat ran out the front door and we didn’t pack a single bag for our trip the next day, I could respond how I would during a regular day. With my typical levels of joy and fatigue and compassion and exasperation. Because it was a regular day, once I remembered to treat it that way.

By Kerry Makin-Byrd, PhD

[Reader, this year I’m planning on bringing a lot more compassion and gratitude to the holiday. And if you’re in the Denver/Aurora, Colorado area, you can join me. Let’s create a holiday season marked by love, compassion, and gratitude together.]

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