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How to Manage Holiday ‘Triggers’


It’s the winter holiday season. How are you feeling? Maybe your answer to that question depends on people you are around.

Many of us have a relative or two that gets under our skin at holiday get-togethers. I have one relative who reliably pushes my buttons in ways that tend to activate my worst self. At one holiday party a few years ago, I went to light candles on the dining room table and just before I sparked a match, my aunt said, “What are you doing? Those candles are for real company!” I tried my best to hold back from saying something I would regret but failed and ended up uttering, “You’ve got to be kidding me, really? It’s wonderful how you much you value your family.” So here I was, the director of a center dedicated to teaching emotional intelligence and I failed to regulate!

How about you? Do you have a relative who gets under your skin? How well do you regulate your feelings when you are around this person?

Most of the time we attempt to deal with our strong, negative feelings once we’ve been activated, like after someone makes a snide remark. We take a deep breath (or not) and say something to ourselves like, “Marc, take the high road and don’t let this person get the best of you,” or we fail like I did, which often leads to family tension, discomfort, bickering, and even resentment.

In my new book, Permission To Feel, I discuss how all of us can become better at preventing undesirable stress from having power over us. Instead of waiting for full-blown irritation or anxiety to arise, we can be proactive by dealing with these emotions ahead of time. This forward-looking approach requires a high degree of self-awareness for us to know what exactly will set us off and why. We need to make time to consider how we’ll likely feel in an upcoming situation with our family and devise a plan ahead of time to alter the impact.

Take my aunt who managed to infuriate me at our holiday dinner. Rather than being annoyed about going to another family holiday party where she’ll be, or gritting my teeth through another tense dinner, I can anticipate that I will be activated by her (she’s reliably difficult) and then prepare myself. One technique is to enter the situation with our “best self” in mind. This might include spending less time with her at the party or modifying how I interact with her—like deciding in advance to sit at the opposite end of the table. It also can include interacting positively with her by having “go-to” strategies for when things get tense.

Here are some steps that can help you better manage holiday triggers.

Like learning a sport or a musical instrument, developing emotion skills and being our best possible selves takes time and dedicated practice. Most of us have not had any formal education in emotion skills. This also means we must give ourselves permission to fail. When that happens, we can only try again. Take a deep breath or two, envision our best selves, and start over. We’ll never stop having to work at being our best selves. But the payoff is worth it: better health, decision making, relationships, better everything.

This essay was featured in the December 15th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.


Marc Brackett, Ph.D., is the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, a professor in the Yale Child Study Center, and the author of the new book, Permission To Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive.

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