SURFing Stress with the In-Laws

I’m usually pretty good about not getting swept away by the stress of the holiday season. But, sometimes despite all my cautions, I find myself in deep water.

The last time I traveled with my partner to visit her folks during her holiday-coinciding vacation days, we engineered our travel schedule to miss some of the rituals. We got cheap airfare by traveling on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.

Her family decided to delay opening their gifts until December 26 so that we could all “celebrate” together!

I didn’t discover this until we arrived at her sister’s house where the family had already gathered. Had I known in advance, I would have respected my boundaries and found something else to do.

I’m not proud of how I handled the situation. I didn’t throw a tantrum. I didn’t bolt. But, I was far more uncomfortable than I would have been if I had applied this coping mechanism from Dan Harris’s 10% Happier podcast on SURFing disquieting urges in the midst of holiday stress.   

See What’s Happening

I could see a familiar setting, a Christmas tree, presents under it, wrapping paper. These were all cues to things that I chose to extricate myself from over the years.

I could see some old feelings coming to the surface. But, those feelings were based on memories and associations, not on anything that was happening in the moment.

Understand What It Is

I could understand the physical sensations that these associations brought up in my body.

It mainly had to do with my spending too many years on the marketing side of the retail business. From our perspective, the holidays were all about getting people to buy stuff so that we could meet our numbers.

This was a holiday based on inducing people to spend more money than they had on things that they didn’t need. It sometimes brought fleeting happiness in the moment of giving. But, the gift rarely lived up to its promise, and was rarely worth the effort it took to buy and pay for it.

This family was participating in the ritual, but they didn’t have the same view of it that I did.

Relax Around It

Though this ritual played out pretty much the same way it had with my family before I opted out, this was their tradition. If it made them happy, I could appreciate that happiness without stressing myself out over all the work that had gone into it.

Observing it with an outsider’s detachment, I only had to feign appreciation by receiving a couple token gifts that I had no use for.    

Find a Little Freedom

I had done everything that I could to avoid getting caught up in the holiday wave. I didn’t have to kick myself for something that was beyond my control.

The event was a helpful reminder that if your freedom depends on things going exactly as you planned, you’re never really free.

If you live on an island, it’s much less stressful if you know how to swim. And if you find yourself in the water with a big wave coming at you, it’s a bonus if you know how to SURF.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.