Posted by Lissa Carter, LPC
You know the story, right? Perhaps you’ve spent the year visiting your therapist weekly, learning new ways of communicating. Perhaps you’ve developed a mindfulness practice, or spent every morning this past month writing down what you are grateful for. Perhaps you’ve found a new community in which you can really feel appreciated for your genuine self.
…And then you visit your family, and it all goes up in smoke.
This time of year, we all face our own challenges. For some of us, it is talking honestly with family who sit on the other side of the political arena. For some, it is the loneliness of not having a family at all, having lost family members who were dear to us, or having a family who has forsaken us. And for some, it is the stress of maintaining our own values in the face of an onslaught of social responsibilities and expectations—-or our sobriety in the face of a slew of temptations.
Let’s not dance around it: this is a rough time of year. And to make matters worse, there’s this expectation that we are supposed to be having the TIME OF OUR LIVES….and it really seems like everyone else truly is!
So let’s slow this train down and take a look at what it might feel like to exercise authenticity and self-compassion around the holidays. Drumroll please…
Here is your four-step guide to being genuine when you are feeling like a hot mess.
1) Setting the Stage for Authenticity
As you’ve probably noticed, there’s more than one version of yourself living in your body. There’s the wise self that knows what truly matters and puts that first. There’s the hurt, wounded self that lashes out when you’ve had a rough day. There’s the veneer you smooth on when you have an important meeting at work, or need to turn on the charm. There’s the you that seems only to emerge when you are spending time in your hometown, or with your family of origin.
When we talk about authenticity, it is extremely important to name WHICH ASPECT of yourself you want to be authentic to. Does any of this sound familiar?
“I know I committed to working out with you this evening, but I had a rough day and I’m really tired. I need to honor my need for solitude.”
“Well fine, I promised you I’d do this and I never break my promises.” (inner demon rubs its hands together gleefully and murmurs ‘but you are sooooo going to regret making me follow through….’)
“I know you’re hurt, but I am furious right now. I need to be authentic and tell you that I have no interest in working out our differences.”
It’s crucial to be honest with ourselves, first and foremost. Are we choosing to be authentic to the BEST version of ourselves, the one that aligns with our values? Or are we choosing to be authentic to the wounded part of ourselves and let it have control over our choices and relationships?
Steven Hayes, cofounder of ACT therapy, posed a question in a recent training that has lingered with me. “Suffering is going to show up,” he said. “It does not invalidate the pain we are feeling to ask ourselves what do I want to be about, even in the face of this suffering?”
What do I want to be about, even in the face of this suffering?
In other words, to whom do you want to be authentic? Which part of you is most deserving of your loyalty?
Take a little time, right now, to write out how you want to be, even when you are falling apart. Who do you want to be when you are having a difficult conversation? Who do you want to be when you have to do something you dislike?
2) Front-Loading with Self-Compassion
So, while we’re being all authentic, let me ask you: why are we always trying to slide out of our values and commitments? Why do we go out for dinner when we are trying to save money? Why do we say yes to a day of binge-watching a new show when we said we’d spend the weekend hiking? And why do we continue to sneak sugar/alcohol/chips when we told ourselves we want to eat healthier?
We’re not bad people. And we’re not lying to ourselves—-we truly do want to keep those commitments. It’s just that it’s really hard, because the payoff is in the future and the sacrifice is in the present moment.
Let me say that again: these tender animal bodies of ours HATE feeling discomfort in the present because the future payoff doesn’t feel as real as the present pain.
So the kindest, most helpful thing we can do for ourselves is to make these changes as gently and lovingly as possible. When that harsh critical voice shows up, telling you all the ways you are flawed, don’t side against yourself. Wrap a warm arm around your tender self and say “this is really hard. I want the best for you, and I know change is scary.”
Bring a little payoff into the present by being your own compassionate cheerleader. We are much more likely to stay the course if our inner voice is telling us “This is hard, I know. I’m sorry. And I think we’ve got this.”
3) Befriending Our Own Experience
Just as you did in step one, take a moment here to set an intention for yourself:
No matter what happens, I refuse to make an enemy of my experience.
Read that over a few times, and speak it quietly to yourself. What would it mean, if you were committed to befriending your own experience? What would it mean if, when your feelings are horribly hurt over the dinner table, or you feel a simmering resentment over the way you are being treated, you tell yourself:
“Wow, I am feeling so hurt right now. Where is that pain hitting me? What can I do to support myself through this?”
“Keep it together, you idiot! Grit your teeth, smile, and stop being such a drama queen. Geez, stop playing into their hands!”
or even, more subtly:
“Oh no! It’s happening again! No no no no no no I SO wanted it to be different this year!”
The first response befriends reality. The second one fights it, and the third one flees it.
But no matter how you treat reality, it’s still reality!
We don’t have a lot of control over the things that happen to us, or over the thoughts and feelings we have in response. What we DO have control over is how we act on those thoughts and feelings. Make the commitment to yourself that your actions will befriend the reality of your experience, rather than arguing with or avoiding it.
Perhaps this means that when overwhelming grief shows up in the middle of an event you hoped would feel inspirational, you let yourself feel fully overcome with grief and ask “what might this grief be inspiring me to do?”
Perhaps this means that when rage shows up at a time you hoped to feel calm, you allow yourself to ask “how might allowing myself the full experience of this rage burn away some obstacles to my ability to feel calm?” Allow yourself to hold the possibility that you can have the reality of your experience AND move toward your values, at the same time.
4) Permission to Pause
Want to know the best thing about being a hot mess? It’s time-limited!
No, really! Our nervous systems are designed that way. Full freak-out is too energy-intensive to maintain for very long, so our nervous systems are constantly working to re-regulate.
If you are truly feeling triggered, and even your best attempts at staying authentic to your best self, being self-compassionate, and befriending reality are falling short, please know that you are worthy of a pause.
You always, always, always get to call a time out when you need one.
It might look like excusing yourself to the bathroom and then taking 5 deep breaths on the toilet seat, or it might look like taking yourself off on a walk, taking some time to write, or calling a friend. The truth is, we cannot think rationally when our nervous systems are in fight-or-flight mode, so any time we take to soothe and calm ourselves will only benefit us in the long run. Walk away, review the first three steps of this process, and return when you feel like your best self is back in charge.
So…..should you be genuine when you are a hot mess?
A RESOUNDING YES. Because if you are only allowed to be yourself when you are “acceptable”, you are going to miss out on a LOT of life!
Even your ‘hot mess’ self deserves befriending, compassion, and time.