Holidays can trigger powerful emotional reactions. We all know what the holidays are supposed to be like–perfect gifts and understanding, the warm glow of family togetherness and a spirit of lovingkindness.
But the gap between this illusive image and our reality, filled with holiday pressures and challenging gatherings, can be a set up for hot button responses.
It is possible, however, to “cool down” these hot buttons, improving our communications and increasing our holiday serenity in the process.
Here are 5 simple steps for cooling down holiday-intensified hot buttons:
1. Identify your hot buttons. We can’t change our response to hot buttons unless we know what they are. So, start by thinking of a holiday remark or action that sets you off.
One example is the loaded question: at a family gathering, your grandmother asks why you’re still not married; or your brother in law asks if you found a job yet; or your mother asks if you should really eat whipped cream on that pie. Think about the facts (what happened or what was said) and feelings (how you felt, reacted.) If you felt overwhelming shame or instant anger, they most likely hit a hot button.
Now what? I’ve never had much success getting family members or other loved ones to stop “pushing” my hot buttons, even when I’ve clearly identified them. If that’s true for you as well, I recommend steps 2-5.
Step 2 Tell your own story.
The next step is to understand the story you are telling yourself about what the button “pusher’s” intent was and what he/she thinks of you. This often involves some variation of your belief that the other person must think you are unimportant, incompetent, stupid, or unlikable. These internal stories are hurtful, and give hot buttons some of their power.
You may believe your mother is saying you are fat and/or greedy for wanting the whipped cream, or your brother in law is judging you as lazy and incompetent for not having a job.
Step 3: Explore your underlying emotions (backstory).
Our childhood and earlier adult experiences are the true source of the intensity for current hot buttons. If someone’s words or actions remind us of earlier hurtful events, or seem to repeat a pattern, we react against all of those incidences, not simply to the present trigger.
If my mother put me on a diet when I was a young teenager, for example, one remark about whipped cream can set off an emotional storm. Or if a parent implied I was lazy, my brother in law’s remark triggers those old bad memories.
Step 4: Imagine a different story.
After we become aware of the story we are telling ourselves, the next step to imagine a different story. This could mean shifting our vision to enter the other person’s perspective or changing our self-story for the better.
Perhaps your brother in law is asking about the job out of concern and caring, albeit poorly expressed, or feels badly about his own job situation and is displacing it on you. Your mother may believe she is being helpful, especially if she is always on a diet herself.
Step 5: Change your response (Act as if).
The final step is to change your response; in effect, to unhook the hot button and detach. You can choose to act as if the kind interpretation or positive aspect you investigated or invented in step 4 is correct.
Then, use this new perspective to slow down and change your response. Getting support and perspective from a friend, coach, or counselor can also help. We don’t really know the other person’s intent; we only know the effect on us. Deciding to assume the better story is true and responding accordingly can help us detach and stay serene during the holidays.