Christmas can be a challenging time. Where we want to be with family, we also find that it's when our buttons are most easily pressed. What starts of as a happy family event can end in dramatic falling out, arguments, disconnection, alienation, pain and hurt.
In our western Judaeo-Christian culture, love, kindness, peace and connection are praised as ‘Christmas virtues’, however, it strikes me that quite the opposite is often true in our families and in the world at large.
Research studies show that people who do more acts of kindness are happier. And people who experience kindness feel more connected to themselves and others.
What does being kind really mean?
• Being kind does not mean being nice and pleasing others all the time.
• Being kind means being able to see the other as they are.
• Being kind means going beyond needing things to be the way we want them to be.
• Being kind means being aware of our own and others’ needs.
• Being kind means being able to feel for someone, to understand what might be going on for them.
• Being kind means doing something for someone even if we don’t’ feel like it.
• Being kind means reaching out to someone even if it feels difficult and connecting to our common humanity, ie that they too suffer and are having a tough time.
• Being kind means finding time to commit to small acts of kindness.
What stops us choosing kind more often?
Being kind is an innate human ability we all share. Yet to be genuinely kind, it requires us to let our defences down, to show our tender side, as kindness comes from the heart, not from the head.
Many of the difficulties we experience at Christmas among family members stem from the high expectations we impose on ourselves and on others.
Where we start with good intentions to be at our best - kind and caring - we find that in no time our buttons are being pressed by one or more family members.
Something they say or do annoys us, even makes us angry and we react to defend ourselves. By defending ourselves, we offend the other and off we go into a downward spiral of argument and disharmony. Then we beat ourselves up for kicking off an argument, for saying what we said rather than being kind, which adds another layer of pain to our experience.
Sometimes we harbour particular expectations about how our family members should behave, and when they don’t do how we wish, we go into judgement about all the things we don’t like about them. This creates a sense of hostility and separation rather than connection and belonging.
This is certainly true for me. For many years, I had an expectation that my family members ‘should’ be interested in my life in London, what I've been doing and how I've been getting on. However, each time I visit my family, none of this interest materialises. Often it feels as though I don’t have a life. I arrive back to my family in Germany and it's as though nothing had happened since my last visit. It often feels painful and lonely.
Practising kindness creates connection, on which we all thrive
I've since accepted that in my family, sharing what’s really going on in our lives is not on the agenda -it’s about other people, neighbours, colleagues, politics etc. On the surface, it seems easier, it doesn’t involve being vulnerable and owning up to how things really are, that perhaps life feels difficult and that not everything is going so well. But, the downside is, it creates distance rather than connection.
It has been my practice over the years to make an effort to share more of what’s going on for me even though nobody asks me anything. It’s difficult but I now know that it is not personal. I make an effort to ask my family members questions about their work, holiday plans, friends, pets etc. They seem to like it. Just because they don’t ask me about my life, doesn’t mean I can’t do it. This is my practice of kindness. Being interested in them, listening, and most importantly letting go of any expectations and accepting them as they are – with all their shortcomings and qualities.
'We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives" - Brene Brown
Tips on how to practice kindness and connection:
• Make time for your family members: When asking them ‘How are you?’, stop and listen, be interested in how they really are - it only takes a few minutes.
• Become aware of the expectations you have of yourself and others – and remember, we can't change others, we can only change ourselves.
• Gratitude – reflect on things you are grateful for e.g. your parents, a sibling and how they have supported you.
• Show appreciation for your family members: It’s easy to moan, but how about showing some appreciation at the end of a meal or while tidying up, for example: “Thank you for putting so much effort into cooking a lovely meal.” Or, “I appreciate you hosting all of us this year, I know it’s a lot of work.” Or, “You look lovely in your new outfit.” Or, “Thank you for being so patient with me, I know I have been a bit grumpy lately.” Or, “Thank you for being you. I feel grateful for having you in my life.” Or, “Thank you for buying me such a lovely present; you really put some thought into it.” etc.
• Wish someone well: Throughout the Christmas period wish someone in your family, a colleague or friend well. It can be the same person or a different one. Notice the effect and how you feel.
• Practice small acts of kindness for a family member, colleagues, friends and strangers, particularly during the Christmas period. Action for Happiness' Advent calendar is full of ideas, ideas we can practice year-round.
Love (or kindness) and connection are universal human needs. Along with other values like trust, respect, safety and acceptance, they help us to thrive, to be well and feel fulfilled.
Enjoy this Christmas time…and notice the difference….
Karen Liebenguth is a qualified coach and MBTI facilitator. She specialises in 1:1 coaching while walking outdoors in green space where she believes insight, change and creativity can happen most naturally. Karen is also an accredited and associate mindfulness teacher with Breathworks UK offering 1:1 mindfulness training and tailored mindfulness programs for the workplace. For more information on Karen’s work visit her website