Overcoming Overwhelm: Take Back Control of How You Feel at the Holidays

Around the holidays, we so often feel responsibility to do things and go place and be around people we would rather not. The answer isn’t hiding in your house (which, to be honest, is my default) but is carefully vetting what you say yes to, and making sure that you get firm and clear in your boundaries around what (and who) you are willing to put up with. Be honest with yourself. Be honest with your loved ones. In the end this will serve you more than putting on a happy face and forging forth with discomfort and unease.

Here are a few short excerpts from my book Overcoming Overwhelm: Dismantle Your Stress from the Inside Out that might help you reframe what you are saying yes to over the holidays:

Emotional Contagion

Human beings are prone to picking up the emotions of the people around us. This is known as emotional contagion. Studies show that the people we work with impact our emotional state. Spouses of depressed individuals are more likely to be depressed, as are their children and even their roommates. One 2014 study even looked at Facebook posts and

 provided evidence that “emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people . . . and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues.” This is a great example of how important your virtual environment is to your health and wellbeing. It is a real part of your world.

Who you spend your time with will affect how you feel. If you spend all your time surrounded by people who are negative, it is harder to stay positive. If you surround yourself with people who are anxious all the time, you’ll be prone to anxiety. If you surround yourself with people who cut you down, you’ll start to believe that you’re less than you are.

Consequently, if you want to keep your stress down and your mood up, choose to surround yourself with people who uplift you, wherever and whenever you have a choice.

Self-Sacrifice and People Pleasing

Being raised to believe that a good person puts others first, or being a people pleaser at the expense of your own needs, can be huge roadblocks to creating the life you want to live. Of course, it’s okay to do things for other people; that makes you a good human. But if you put other people first all the time, and what’s most important for you is to make someone else happy, you will never be able to prioritize what you need to do to take care of yourself.

Although self-sacrifice and people pleasing can be an issue across genders, women, in particular, feel pressured to take care of others before ourselves. I posed to readers of my Facebook page: “What keeps you from doing the things you need to do to take care of yourself?” In response, one woman wrote, “The ‘people pleaser’ part of my personality. Hijacks me all the time. I’d rather work to the bone to make someone happy than risk being a disappointment to them.” The idea that it is selfish to prioritize our needs over that of our co-workers, our bosses, or our families, that self-sacrifice is the noblest ideal, has deep roots in many cultures and religious traditions. But the story that we should take care of everyone else first, while certainly influenced by societal expectation, can also stem from a deep sense of unworthiness.

Learning how to be discerning in what we give to others, so as not to deplete ourselves, can be difficult. But it’s important—and not just for your own well-being. Building up your reserves of energy is imperative for taking care of others, too. If you want to be able to do your best job, you need to put yourself first, at least some of the time. Imagine trying to rescue someone from drowning, when you’re exhausted, cold, alone, and don’t have your own flotation device.

If people pleasing or compulsive caretaking and self-sacrifice are issues for you, ask yourself whether you are consciously choosing to put others first because that reflects your values, goals, and priorities, or whether it’s just a knee-jerk pattern in your life.

There are some people for whom taking care of others even at the cost of their own well-being does align with their values. And there are times when you may need or want to put others first, like my client Susan did (see chapter 4). But if you know you compulsively put others first and want to change it, then start practicing saying no—to small things first, perhaps—and not apologizing when you make a choice to do something for yourself.

Saying no in order to take care of yourself is like exercising a muscle.

Each time you do it, the easier it is the next time—both because people learn not to expect you to say you’ll pick up the slack, and because you realize that it’s not the end of the world if people are disappointed.

Some people will always be disappointed in you. And in every relationship, you’ll cause some disappointment. This is life. Avoiding disappointing others at all costs only hurts both you and those you love.

Yours in health,




Take Back Control of How You Feel at the Holidays

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