My Not-So Silent Night and How I Recovered

Years ago, when my children were small, I set a modest goal of celebrating the return of light as it is practiced by most of the people of the world. My thought was that Winter Holiday was a chance to give my children an appreciation for global diversity at the same time they honored their own religious heritage. By Christmas Eve, what they had gained was a deep respect for Mother in Meltdown.

There I was singing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve at a caroling service. My 9-year old daughter kept whispering, “You’re not getting it right” as I belted out the alto part I had sung all my life. By the time I got home, I was so angry the steam must have been visible from my ears. I banged doors and stomped around the house, assuring that whatever silence was left in the night was driven out. A quick walk in the cold air barely calmed me down enough to get a glimpse the irony of the situation. There I was a teacher, author, and lecturer on family peacemaking. And yet one criticism of a child had blind-sided me and triggered my inner dragon.

All I understood at that point was that this was NOT just about singing. I put on my big-girl panties and focused on finding enough peace within to pull myself (and the rest of Christmas Eve) together.  I managed to rescue the rest of that holiday by canceling about half the celebrations and activities that I had scheduled. But it wasn’t until after the Festive Season was well over that I had a chance to look back with 20-20 hindsight.

I was celebrating one last holiday by myself in early January. after the kids had gone back to school.  I didn’t know much about Epiphany because it wasn’t a part of my religious upbringing, but I liked the thought of looking for an epiphany somewhere in the wreckage of Christmas Past, so I sat with my journal to to make some notes for future winter holidays.

While it was still fresh, I made  an extensive list of all that I had tried to do and then cut it down to no more than three specific simple activities that actually brought peace rather than stress to my family.  Then I forced myself to choose: Was it coordinating refreshments for the school Holiday play? Or covering pine cones with peanut butter and seeds and posting them in the woods to feed birds? Or making Grandma’s cranberry bread to distribute? Reading stories or singing carols? The top three stress-free choices jumped to the top of the list. This became my tickler list for planning the next year.

Then I remembered the not-so silent night two weeks before. I remembered the phrase my daughter had whispered: You can’t get it right. And sure enough, I had an epiphany. I could see that this one phrase: You’re not getting it right,” was the basis of the very belief system that had caused me to overdo and overwork in other areas on my life. I could see that it simply wasn’t true, but I seemed to have believed it anyway. I became curious about other beliefs and lies that might be lurking below the surface of my holiday frenzy. They jumped onto the page of my journal.

Lie #1
I have to do it alone.  I had acted as if I was solely responsible for Holiday Elfdom. Once I saw that this wasn’t true, I began to look for help. I made a note to gather a group of friends to share the joy and hassle of baking, creating gifts and coordinating gingerbread construction projects with our kids.
Lie #2
More is better. This driving thought began with the Turkey Day Feast and seemed to take hold for about six weeks. It included over-eating, over-shopping, over-partying, and general over-stimulation. I took a few minutes to re-visit each event and starred the ones with the highest peace quotient. I added these to my list for next year.
Lie #3
I have to get it right (and its cousins This should be a perfect Christmas or I can’t disappoint the kids) Believing this thought was the very source of my not-so Silent Night, as well as all the stress throughout time that had robbed the season of peace. I made a pact with myself to watch the ways I believed this lie in the coming year and begin to question it. I also started noticing that my desire to not disappoint my children was creating frenzy for me all year round.

It wasn’t an overnight process, but once I had seen the power of these potent core beliefs, I could see that it was possible to not believe them and defuse meltdown at the source. I was on my way to creating a simpler holiday for the next year.  It wasn’t until New Years ten years later that I discovered a tool that would radically change my relationship with the all core beliefs that caused so much stress in my life. My daughter and I traveled to a four-day “thought cleanse” with Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is. Her process, dubbed the Work, gave me an elegant tool for unraveling the knots in my thinking. The process of questioning my thoughts and finding something truer got me the source of many of my lies. I came to see that a thought, once understood,  could no longer be believed again.

For instance, I noticed that when I believe I have to get anything right in my life it’s simply not true. Using Katie’s 4 Questions, it went like this: Is it true that I have to get it right? I seem to think so. Yes. Can I absolutely know it’s true? No. How do I live my life when I believe I have to get things right? Guess what? I overstress and overwork. I push myself and miss the joy of the season. Who would I be without the thought? I’d be living my life, not worried about doing things the right way. Just doing them I’d be much freer. As I turned the thought around to its opposite, I noticed that I really didn’t have to get anything right. I could see that trying to get it right causes me to get it wrong. And so on. The process always leads to deeper and kinder truths than the lie did.

Fifteen years later, my daughter is a singer-songwriter who still  has a perfect ear. She is also one of my most powerful teachers. I have come to understand the thought that I can’t get it right and all the ways it has sabotaged my life, not to mention my holidays. The holiday changes each year, but I still cut the list of what I want to do or buy in half and increase my need for quiet personal reflection during the season. I’m able to search out the untrue thoughts on the fly in much of my life, but there’s nothing like curling up with my journal and a cup of tea to discover the saboteurs still lurking beneath the surface as I prepare to create a peaceful holiday.

Heading Off Holiday Meltdown
• Revisit past holidays now in your journal. Make a list of the memories that you cherish.

• Notice the ones that bring peaceful images into your mind. Keep them. Make sure at least one of them allows you quiet time for self-care and reflection.

• Cut your list of “Must-Do’s” in half by finding the thought beneath each one. What thought would drive you to bring stress into this season of peace? Ask yourself some questions. It it true? Absolutely? How do you live when you believe it? Who would you be without it? This is the “you” that will bring peace to the world and your loved ones this holiday season.

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