Nearest and Dearest

Have you ever noticed that people get irrationally irked by those who are closest to them?

The holidays are a great time to observe proximity irritation in its most obvious manner. It come to the forefront as family members spend time closely packed together in stressful situations. Whether it’s a long car or plane ride, or a house that’s too small for all the guests, or parents wanting their kids to be on their best behavior in front of the people who raised them and before their siblings with whom there is always a little family competition. Add to that the expectations that we have for the holidays – the hopes about meals and gifts meeting expectations – and the disruption of our self-regulating activities. Staying up later than we usually do, eating and drinking more than we usually do, sleeping in later than we usually do, and filling our days with family activities that prevent us from the exercise and/or meditation that we use to manage our emotions. Guests wanting to spend time with hosts who maybe couldn’t rearrange their schedules completely to be fully available to people who traveled hours and even days to be with them.

It’s a time bomb waiting to happen.

A few years ago, my husband’s family rented a house in Florida for Christmas week. It was a wonderful time but every day at around 3 pm, the boys – who got along well, for the most part – had a fight. A knock-down, drag out, emotional battle of the wills, each in their own way, that ended with tears and recriminations. It was as if they needed a way to steam off the tension that built up throughout the day that they didn’t otherwise know how to relieve.

You see this at work, as well. Colleagues that, most of the time, work well together in close proximity, suddenly erupt into conflict when things are at their toughest. Suddenly, there are complaints that another person “always” does something or “never” does something else. These absolutist words are indications that someone – and often both parties – are being unreasonable.

Some of this is an indication of how much we, every day, take advantage of those we are closest to. Parents expect children to behave perfectly. Children expect parents to not embarrass them in front of people whose opinions are important to them. Grandparents expect adult children to enforce the same rules that they enforced as parents; and that grandchildren will sit quietly and listen to conversations that children find really boring because the topics are not themselves. Colleagues expect other colleagues to “lean in” (a phase I detest) and shoulder some of the work that they are creating.

Every day we expect this, we – as Steven Covey calls it – make withdrawals from the emotional bank account without making the necessary deposits that we can draw on during stressful times. The emotional bank accounts that come by spending social time with colleagues, asking about the non-work things that are important to them, letting them know we appreciate them. The deposits that come when we listen to children instead of just talking at them and we consider the impact that teasing may have on their fragile egos. The good graces we amass when we do the little things our parents ask for, the simple things that mean so much to them, rather than asserting our independence every time they ask us to pick up our shoes or not abandon half-glasses of soda or juice. The investments we make in ourselves by sitting quietly and watching the reflections of our emotions, by burning off our stress with exercise, by regulating our intake of food, drink, 24-hour news so that we maintain a balance.

These daily practices build a reserve that, in times of trouble, we can draw on to maintain calm when our plane is delayed, or our parents push our buttons, or kids drag out their worst behavior, or colleagues disappoint us by not reading our minds (or perhaps reading them too accurately).

And help us maintain relations with our nearest and dearest.

Happy Holidays!

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