It’s holiday season again and time for family gatherings, happiness, and good cheer. At the same time, the season is full of expectations for happiness, closeness, and reconnection that many people fear will never come. Others fear these things will come and try to think of reasons to run away and hide. In any case, some of our relatives and friends are bound to be squirrely (meaning that they are feeling emotionally off balance but can’t quite figure out why), some may be anxious or forlorn, and still, others may be downright irritable or agitated. Of course, most of them will attempt to hide these negative feelings, because they know that society expects them to be happy and cheerful around the holidays.
So what can you do to help your loved ones enjoy each other and your company?
A secure base is a function. It is something you do…something you provide. People who were raised by parents who did a good job at playing the secure base role (about half of us according to the attachment research) will find that providing this function to others comes naturally. The other half of us will need some pointers, but it really isn’t that complicated.
Parents do this for their children but we also do this for each other in adulthood.
When you decide to act as a secure base, you will be deciding to be consistent, warm, and responsive to those who join you for the holidays.
Here are more specifics:
In order to be consistent in how you respond to others, you will need to be calm and stable; not highly reactive to other people or to your own worried thoughts. In order to do this, you should know your attachment style, be it secure, dismissing, preoccupied, or fearful. Regular readers of this blog will probably know their styles. If you don’t, just click on one of the styles in the sentence above to go to a post that will help you identify yours.
If you have a dismissing style, you are likely to be activated by people who you haven’t felt that close to in a while all of a sudden wanting to be close, find out how you feel about everything, and exchange hugs. If these people are dramatic about it, you may have a particularly hard time hiding your discomfort or desire to turn away from them. You may try to find an excuse to rescue some appetizers from the oven or greet another guest. But, remember, people are likely to be anxious and feel under pressure to be happy at the holiday get together. If they pick up on your discomfort, they may perceive it as a subtle rejection, which will raise their anxiety.
In your secure base role, your job is to reduce anxiety in your friends and relatives. So, why should you do this? First of all, it’s the kind thing to do. Second, you will be giving them a gift…the gift of feeling close to you. Third, if you stay pleasant (and present) and lower their anxiety you may help prevent them from getting squirrelly, allow them to be their better selves and go on to explore their relationships with other people at the gathering.
If you have a preoccupied style, you will probably be prone to notice when other people look uncomfortable or bothered. So, the first thing you will want to do is to turn off your emotional scanner. Before the holiday gathering, remind yourself that your threat detection machinery is just a little too effective. As I suggested earlier, some friends and family are likely to be feeling a variety of emotions at this time. Your emotional system could pick on these emotions in others as potential danger signals. If you tell yourself in advance that there will be too many cues to process, you can choose to ignore them. Yes! Just for now, ignore the data. It won’t help you enjoy yourself or be a secure base for others if you are worried and anxious. And, most of the time, people’s reactions have more to do with how they are regulating emotions than anything you are doing.
If you have a fearful style, you may feel overwhelmed by being in proximity to all of these people. You may want to be close and long for connection, but you may also be worried enough about being injured emotionally that you hide in the kitchen or look painfully uncomfortable. It may seem scary, but remember, these events don’t happen that often, and when it is over, nothing will probably have changed. So, any amount of emotional distress you feel between now and the time it is over will be totally unnecessary. Remind yourself that you can get through this. Focus on the other people and realize that nothing bad is going to happen.
Stay present and out mixing with your guests. Remember, they came to see you not your turkey or ham. If you are going to be available, you need to plan in advance so that you can socialize with people instead of being stuck in the kitchen cooking or filling people’s drinks. And, how many of you ask a spouse or other relative to play host or hostess while you take care of business? Set it up so that business takes care of itself and you can be available to others.
Being available as a secure base does not mean being the life of the party.
Many of you will feel impelled to sound interesting, entertain, or tell lots of jokes. Some people will be truly extraverted and go in that direction. Others might increase their efforts to entertain or be interesting as their anxiety goes up. But you don’t need to do that. It’s perfectly OK to sit back (figuratively; don’t go crash in the recliner) and watch others take on that role. When I think of this, I am reminded of one of my favorite authors, Dale Carnegie. In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, he articulates how at one particular event he was feeling rather awkward and shy and didn’t feel like talking to people. So, he attempted to deflect attention away from himself by asking those around him questions about them. He found that most people were eager to talk about themselves. What surprised him the most, however, was that he later discovered that these same people perceived him to have been a wonderful and interesting man… even though he didn’t talk much about himself at all!
Dale Carnegie realized some simple truths; that when you take an interest in getting to know about others, they will feel warmer toward you; that people generally like talking about themselves and will associate the positive emotions they feel with you. So, think in advance about lots of questions to ask people and see if you can carry a conversation by keeping them talking. You might notice that their emotions are positive, they are less anxious, and that you feel less anxious too.
First, it’s only a few days and it won’t kill you…I promise.
Second, if you focus on giving warmth and care to others, you should become less concerned with what you are getting in return. As a secure base, your focus will be on giving, not getting. This may be pretty tough for some of us from more strained childhoods to get. Some of us will have that secret wish that this year it will happen. The family and friends will finally give us the acceptance, love, and warmth we deserve. But this wish keeps us focused on negative outcomes and ready for disappointment. The sad fact is that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior and next week will probably be like last week in that regard. To overcome setting ourselves up like this, it can help to tell yourself that you are the mature adult in this situation (even if you are the younger person).
If you have a relative who is somewhat abrasive or judgmental and you view yourself as a peer or younger person, you are likely to feel hurt and bothered. If, on the other hand, you view this person as somehow wounded and fragile, it may help you have some compassion for them.
Try being extra kind to that person. Listen to his/her story and show interest, ask about how they see things…and remember, you don’t have to get anything from this person. Ironically, if you focus on helping others reduce their anxiety by being consistent, responsive, and warm, they will appreciate you more for it. By letting go of what you will get out of the exchange, you are probably much more likely to receive good things in the end.
Being responsive also necessitates knowing yourself. If you have overly high expectations for what others will bring you or how much cheer they will offer, then you will be setting your emotional self up for disappointment and anxiety. Try to set your expectations for what YOU will bring to others and how much cheer YOU will offer. And then be content to let other people be themselves. This will help you regulate your emotional state so that you can stay emotionally present and respond to others just as they come.
Being responsive therefore entails knowing your audience and responding to them appropriately. Some people will be melancholy over the holidays. In my own life, for example, decorating the Christmas tree always triggers a tinge of sadness and loss for a mother who passed away decades ago and for Christmas ornaments I made as a child that did not survive my journey into adulthood. Fortunately, I can communicate openly with my wife and children and they know this about me. So, instead of getting annoyed, they respond supportively and allow me to have my feelings. By extension, I don’t feel judged, irritated or anxious. The feeling lasts for a bit and then it dissipates. And, before you know it, I am happy again decorating the tree with my family.
I know that many of you can think of examples, where a person in my position would be criticized for not being cheerful and maybe even accused of being self-centered and uncaring about others. In this instance, the person(s) delivering that message would not be responsive to others. They would not be responsive to own internal needs for validation and appreciation. That person would not be acting as a secure base.
The secure base will be there in a supportive way to allow other people to have their feelings. The secure base will be there with you, will consistently acknowledge and validate those feelings, and will respond in a non-critical and warm manner. Then, the secure base might offer some gentle comfort or uplifting encouragement.
The number one rule of cheering someone up is to first acknowledge and validate their true emotions.
Only then will the person perceive that you authentically care and are not just trying to regulate your own emotions by having the other person fake cheerfulness.
One final thing that will help you be a secure base and respond in a consistently warm and supportive manner is to know your audience. Can you identify your loved ones' attachment styles and anticipate how they process social situations? If you can, you should be able to contribute to their experience of peace and security around the holidays.