Be The Skillful One In Your Family

I originally wrote this at the end of 2016. It’s appropriate again. BreatheOnline starts again November 12th. If you’re wondering whether it’s a good fit for you, read on. 

So, we’re here. It’s the biggest holiday of the year for a lot of us .Maybe you’re already with family. Breathe! I don’t have any great advice about how to avoid all the drama or hurt feelings or fights. I do know how to get through the weekend, though. christmas

This I know. The repeat behaviors, the patterns that you have didn’t start with you.  It probably didn’t start with your parents, or cousins or even your grandparents. Patterns in families go back many generations. It’s crazy when we look at our family tree, how often a pattern repeats, generation after generation.

You do, however, have the power to stop the pattern, at least for your generation and give the future generations some hope. A sweet friend once taught me, “You teach your children how to treat you when they’re adults, by how you treat your parents.” Ow! That one hurt, but it made sense and I’ve  worked on it.

This morning I got this lovely text from another beautiful friend. She said…”Spending lots of time practicing compassion and opening my heart to my family instead of acting on habitual annoyances and behaviors that haven’t worked over the yeas, so shouldn’t work now.” Wow!

Now, let me start by telling you that this is  a woman that I LOVE. She’s smart as hell and has a huge heart that compels her to love deeply and fiercely. She’s a force of nature.

As so often with this friend she shared with me exactly what I was already thinking about and what I needed to hear. Because, to be frank I NEEDED to hear that. When I think about difficult relationships in my life, I think about my parents and my family of origin. However, if I’m honest, I could probably do better at being compassionate and open with my ex and my kids, who I’m spending this holiday with.

Deep down, I think I do a great job at this, but since my kids have some of the same reactions I have with my parents, I know I could probably do some work in this area. The part of her text that really struck me was…”that hasn’t worked over the years, so shouldn’t work now.”

Yes! Of Course!

This is where I fail. Isn’t that the hardest paryt? Recognizing our own patterns is so difficult. I can pick out yours/his/hers in a second, but mine?

So, here’s what else I know. You’re very likely the most skilled person in your family. You have the tools. You have the skills. Or, if you’re reading this, you’re probably really interested in gaining the skills and tools to live a great life with great relationships. (Or you’re just someone who loves me and is interested in what I’m doing in life.)

When you walk into your aunt’s/mom’s/grandma’s house this holiday, act like you’re the most skillful pechristmas2rson in the house. Even if you’re afraid that you’re not, act like it. Acting right is a huge tool.  If you don’t what that looks like imagine what your favorite skillful character in a movie or literature would do. Not the broken one you identify with, the one that you want to be like.

That doesn’t mean you’re the person that knows the most. It doesn’t mean you should move through the living room, person by person, sibling by sibling and tell each one how to fix their life. In my family there are people with medical degrees and master degrees, neither of which I possess. They are way more book smart than I am, but I’m still the most skillful. I don’t always act like it, but I am.

To be truly skillful, I need to act like it, though.

So, how do we do that?  It means be present. Be present with the moment, each moment. Stay out of your head and open your heart. If you’re  remembering the snide comment your sister made at Thanksgiving, you’re not being present. Let the past go. Whether someone did something truly terrible to you or slighted you in some little way, getting over that and thru that is work for you and your therapist and possibly work for you to do with that person in the future. Delving into it in front of your five year old daughter/niece/granddaughter is not acting skillful. Nor is it fair or the recipe for a great family get together.

Acting skillful means taking care of yourself.  First, do what you know to do. Take care of all your immediate needs. This is where being present helps a lot. If you’re in your brain or being run by your emotions you may not notice that you’re starving and haven’t eaten since yesterday. Take care of your immediate needs as they arise.

Do NOT be a martyr. It may seem selfless, but it’s passive-aggressive and selfish. Don’t put off eating lunch so you can run out for your nephew/son/grandson to replace the charger that he left 300 miles away. If this is your family role, mix up the pattern by doing something different.hydrate

Hydrate. Eat. Rest. Pee. These are basic survival skills and if you’re making excuses why you don’t have time to do them, there is something seriously whacked about your thinking.

Eat and drink WELL. It is so tempting to overindulge. We LOVE to numb, don’t we? Eating your emotions around your family may seem like a great escape. It’s not. Try not to eat too much sugar or over-caffeinate. You won’t feel great, you’ll get sluggish and your temper will be short, you’ll be more reactionary and a lot more likely to say or do something to ratchet up the tension and drama.

This one really sucks. Don’t drink too much. Alcohol may seem like a good idea, but it’s another way of numbing, which means you won’t have the chance to be present. It’s also going to loosen your inhibitions, which means that you’ll be more likely to say something you shouldn’t-even if you REALLY want to-and you also may act the way you really want to with your cousin’s hot third husband. You’ll only hold your head in your hands the next day and wonder WHY!

Two more quick things about too much alcohol and numbing. If there are family members that get drunk and act poorly, just let it go. It is not your place to break up a fight, teach anyone how to behave or settle any family disputes. ESPECIALLY, if this has been your job, this is the time to change the pattern and not do it. Don’t get your dog in the fight. You are not responsible for anyone else’s behavior or feelings, unless you have a child under 16.

We are not capable of numbing selectively. You can’t numb your discomfort/fear/pain without numbing any chance of being present and being in joy/happiness/connection. It all gets numbed and even if it’s uncomfortable or ugly, ultimately you lose out.

So, those are basics, but there are some upper level skills, too. These are the ones we kinda know we’re supposed to do, but often get pushed aside. Get some exercise. Exercise will help your attitude, your physical happiness and will help your brain be less reactionary. Maybe it’s just a brisk walk around the block a few times today. Maybe you get to take an hour for yourself and get to a gym. Whatever it is, if you can get out of the house to do it, all the better. If it’s sunny and not too cold that’s even better. Sunlight helps with managing our moods.

That leads us to take breaks. We all need to take breaks from our families. That’s not weakness or selfishness, it’s skilled behavior. Take ten minutes, go into a quiet place (yes, there is one somewhere), throw your legs up the wall, close your eyes and BREATHE. Don’t ruminate over your rude uncle. Just close your eyes and listen to your heart beating, feel the breath filling your lungs and emptying your lungs. Be present in the moment and don’t think about any part of the past or the future.

Finally, back to openness and compassion. THIS is the weekend to flex those compassion muscles. If you are having trouble feeling open to your mother-in-law’s nit-picking and constant criticism, do a heart opening pose. Do a passive backbend by folding some blankets till they resemble a bolster and lay over them so that the blanket/bolster hits you midway in the thoracic spine. For women, that’s about where your bra hooks. Breathe. Imagine your heart opening,. Literally it means the space at the breastbone is expanding.

When I’m really struggling with compassion I try to remember what’s under the behavior. Under anger is always fear. Fear of losing something, fear of not being enough, fear of not getting enough. Mostly, that’s about love, but it can be other things also.

Your nit-picky, critical mother-in-law? She’s probably a lot harder on herself and doesn’t realize how hard she’s being on you. There’s a good chance she doesn’t think that she measures up and there’s a really good chance she’s intimidated by you.  Along with that may be a fear of losing her child to you.

Now, when our egos get in the way, we may think GOOD. I’m glad I scare her. When we’re standing in lovingkindness and compassion we can feel how much that must hurt and how scary it can be. We’ve all been there, right?

Regardless of how you feel like acting, try acting compassionate and loving. In DBT, it’s called acting opposite to emotion. Regardless of what horribly, sexist/racist/bigoted thing your uncle says, let it roll off your back. Today is not the day to challenge his long held beliefs. A different day, not a holiday, you can open your heart to him and sit him down and tell him that it hurts you and it makes you feel like he doesn’t value you. The holiday is not the time to call him a pig and is not going to endear his family to you. Don’t be the one that starts the family war. You’re better than that.

If all else fails, there’s one skillful trick that absolutely never fails. Sit quietly, keep your mouth shut and smile. If nothing else, you will be considered the zen one this weekend. Nobody has to know about the turmoil inside. Just smile and eat your potatoes.

breathe-onlineInterested in learning more about these skills and tools? I’m teaching BreatheOnline in January. It’s aimed at people who want to learn to manage their anxiety and/or depression, but lots of us can learn to be more skillful, right?  It’s full of life-changing skills and tools. Can’t wait for you to join us! for more information or to sigh up. for even more info and community on the FB page. Always feel free to call, 785-769-5412 or email,






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