Have you ever felt guilt and disappointment rear their ugly heads during the holiday rush?
We want to make it really nice for our loved ones. We want to use Christmas as an opportunity to thank our caregivers and network of support. We want to show how much they mean to us by giving them a delicious Christmas dinner, a home-made present, or a thoughtful card.
And yet, we often can’t.
I remember that when I had severe Chronic Fatigue Syndrome it was already hard enough to get through a normal day. Often, during the holiday season, I just didn’t have the energy to make my presents beautiful, thoughtful, or special enough so that they could live up to my high expectations.
And I felt lots of ugly emotions about it. I remember feeling resentment, disappoint in myself, and sadness. It was difficult to deal with.
Luckily, on my recovery journey, I’ve come across a simple practice to deal with this.
If you ever get down on yourself during the Christmas season, I believe that the simple technique below, adapted from world-renowned healer Byron Katie (or ‘Katie’ as everyone calls her), can make a big difference for you. It can show you a way to work through some of the difficult thoughts and emotions that can get triggered during the pre-holiday season.
A practice for escaping the stranglehold of stressful thoughts
Before we engage in the actual practice, we’ll want to identify what thought we want to use the process on: At this moment, what thought is causing you the most stress and suffering?
Example: My love, Erin’s birthday is during the advent season. I remember having the hardest of times before one of her birthdays. I wanted to give her a special present to really show her how much I loved her. I had planned to arrive at her house as rested as possible equipped with a thoughtful card, a gift, and fresh flowers from the Luebeck flower store. I had even asked someone to drive me to her house, so that I could rest on the way and be as energized for her as possible.
But aside from wanting Erin to know how much I loved her, there was also a darker side to the motivation for my efforts. I did not know about Katie’s practice at the time, but looking back I recall that the following thoughts were tormenting me then:
“I’m not good enough if I don’t ‘WOW’ Erin with my present.”
“Erin might leave me if I can’t even get her a birthday present.”
In short, I had some pretty gnarly thoughts before approaching her birthday.
But let’s get back to you and identifying your stressful thoughts: What difficult thoughts are tantalizing you this Christmas season?
When you’ve identified a thought, note it on a piece of paper and jump right to step one of Katie’s simple, five-step practice.
Step one – Is the thought true?
Ask yourself whether the thought that’s disquieting you is true.
For example, my answer at the time would have been YES. Absolutely! That’s why I’m stressing out in the first place.
Step two – Is it absolutely true?
Katie is testing us here. She’s asking us to inquire whether we know with absolute certainty that our distressing thought is true.
Example: When Erin and I were dating, I did not know with absolute certainty that I wouldn’t be good enough if I didn’t make a nice present for her; the thought was based on my presumptions. Nobody had ever told me that I was “not good enough“; I had made this up myself. Katie’s question helped me to realize this.
“Erin might leave me if I can’t even get a nice birthday present.” This thought already sounds a little funky. Although the thought seemed really true at the time, it was rather unlikely that Erin would leave me just because of a birthday present. But would she leave me because of everything together, all the things I couldn’t be to her anymore since I had come down with this illness? That was definitely possible at the time, but I couldn’t say that it was true with absolute certainty: She had never said that she would leave me, and the last time I saw her she wasn’t packing and driving to the airport.
What about your stressful thought: Is it absolutely true?
Step three – How do you react when you believe that thought?
In my case, I was a complete nervous wreck on Erin’s birthday. Due to the stressful thoughts, I hadn’t been able to relax on my drive to her house as I had planned. To make matters worse, I hadn’t been able to get her the flowers, because downtown Luebeck was traffic-jammed.
Arriving at Erin’s house, I was completely devastated. I tried to smile when Erin opened the door, but when Erin lovingly told me that my pants’ fly was open while I gave her a birthday hug, I could no longer hide my turmoil: I burst into tears.
Thinking that I was only good enough if I appeared as the perfect birthday boyfriend with the perfect gift had left me completely nerve wracked and emotionally exhausted.
I’d love to spare you the pain and sorrow I experienced during that year at Christmas. So let’s get you moving on this step of the practice. Think about what emotions or body sensations come up when you think the stressful thought you’ve identified earlier. Note it on your piece of paper.
Step four – Who would I be without this thought?
It’s hard to tell who I would have been without that thought, since it’s been so long ago. However, I think the answer is pretty much the same for any distressing thought. Without the stressful thought, we can be more present to what we do without spending all our emotional and physical energy on worrying about the future. The energy we would spend on worrying about the future we can then spend on other things, for example, quality family time by the Christmas tree.
Would I have been a slacker without the thought that I’m only good enough with an awesome present? I don’t think so. Even without the thought, I might still have tried to make a nice present for Erin, but I’d have done it from a place of love, not fear or a feeling of inadequacy. I would have arrived at Erin’s house happier and with more energy, which would have made for a more beautiful evening.
Who would you be without your stressful thought?
Step five – Turn the thought around
Let me illustrate this step again with an example. The turnaround for the first of my two stressful thoughts is “I am good enough, even when when I don’t ‘WOW’ Erin with my present.”
The turnaround of the second thought is “Erin will stay with me and continue to love me even if I don’t give her a nice Christmas present.”
The turnaround states the complete opposite of what my original thought was. It’s counter intuitive; your first reaction to your turned around thought might be: “That turnaround is just not true!”
Please bear with me, as this is where the next piece of Katie’s famous practice comes in. Katie wants us to come up with at least three genuine reasons for why the turnaround is true.
For example, here are three reasons for why it was true that “I am good enough, even when if didn’t ‘WOW’ Erin with my present.”
- I am doing my very best to recover from my illness. It’s OK that I need a lot of time for myself right now and don’t have a fancy present to give.
- Even if Erin was unhappy with me when I don’t give her the perfect gift, my worth is not dependent on her. My worth is independent of what anyone thinks of me.
- Erin loves to take care of me! Taking care is one of her virtues. It’s OK with her that I’m sick right now.
- Bonus: Even though I’m sick, nobody puts a smile on Erin’s face like I do. She loves me.
What genuine reasons do you know that give authority to your turned around thought? Spend some time to come up with the best reasons you can find.
Going through Byron Katie’s simple practice, I’ve been able to disarm my stressful thoughts, and so have countless other sufferers of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. That’s why Chronic Fatigue Syndrome plagued author Toni Bernhard writes about it in her popular book How To Be Sick- A Buddhist Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. That’s also why Fina Vyver, one of the official Gupta Programme coaches, raved about this technique on our last Gupta coaches’ conference call.
The practice works. Now make it work for you.
Please feel free to share your distressing thought and your turnaround in the comments as an inspiration for other readers.