A few weeks back, my mom and I were driving to Baltimore-Washington International Airport when we got locked in one of our typical bickering matches.
She kept repeating the name of the parking lot we were to park in. “Long-term Lot B.” “Long-term Lot B.” Five minutes later, “Long-term Lot B.” Yet again, “Long-term Lot B.”
“I hear you,” I said with a hint of bitterness. Internally, I felt like a 16-year-old again, only talking to my mom in short bursts of “I hear you” and “I know” on my way out the door.
But in the silence that followed, I noticed that my stomach and shoulders had tensed up, and that I wasn’t even looking for the “Long-term Lot B” sign. I was lost in my head.
This noticing loosened me up. I remembered that my mom had introduced the idea of the cross-country trip to see my sister. I realized that she had put a ton of thought and care into planning and budgeting the flight, and so, in her mind, parking in “Long-term Lot B” was an important step.
So, I mustered the vulnerability to say, “Hey, I appreciate that you set all this up.”
She didn’t respond, seemingly lost in her paranoia about missing the turn to the parking lot.
We continued into the early morning darkness, eventually bickering again over our plans for once we landed in San Francisco.
I tell this short, inconsequential story to highlight what is, counterintuitively, the most important ingredient in making the best of spending time with family, particularly your parents: having compassion for yourself.
Self-compassion won’t convince your uncle that his support for Trump is support for white supremacy or stop your grandmother from judging you for not going to church. But it will give you a little bit more freedom to choose how to engage with those who trigger you back into parts of yourself much smaller, narrower, and younger than who you’ve become and who you really are.
“Self-compassion” sounds hippie and new agey, but so what? I’m 100 percent confident that taking it easy on myself has improved my life more than any other skill. It might seem obvious to you, but it’s taken years of meditation and therapy and the help of countless friends and teachers for me to realize that I spend more time with myself than I do with anybody else. Not because I’m an introvert or that I like to read books, but because I am literally always with myself. Even while eating lunch with a friend, I’m still paying some attention to myself, whether I notice it or not — how I feel, how I relate to my friend, what I should say next, how much time I have, and so on.
We all do this automatically, but many of us aren’t so nice to ourselves. We obsessively plan what we’ll say next, as if whoever we are with won’t accept us unless we fix their problems, provide them some value, or come off in a certain way. We ignore our emotions, repressing them so we don’t say how we really feel because doing so might get us in trouble. We spend hours rehashing conversations, worrying that we hurt others or didn’t say enough to impress them.
Your relationship with yourself is complicated, developed through your experiences as a kid, the trauma you’ve been through, and how the powerful in society treat you based on your skin color, gender, sexuality, and (lack of) wealth. Befriending yourself is difficult, but even if you can only do it a little bit and for short periods of time you’ll notice the difference.
After snapping at my mom, I could have gone down the rabbit hole of blaming myself, of turning my reaction into more evidence that I haven’t really grown up, that I’m a bad son, that I’m not where I should be when it comes to handling my emotions — and in the past I would have. But one thing I’ve learned about myself is that when I feel anger, I try to escape it, usually not by getting aggressive with whoever I’m angry at, but by getting aggressive with myself. This aggression looks like self-blame, shame, and guilt, a noxious mix meditation teacher Tara Brach calls the “trance of unworthiness.”
This trance is a natural part of being human. We identify with our actions and feelings, quickly assuming that we’re broken and unfixable, or broken and therefore in need of fixing. If we say something mean, we must be a mean person. If we fall of the wagon and smoke a cigarette, we’re not only a “smoker,” but we’re also a failure, whatever that means.
And that’s why the holidays in particular can be so tough. For most of us, family members have the unique power to trigger us into old behavior. We spent so much time with them early in life, so they easily push us back into patterns that served us back then.
This year try to notice when you’ve been pulled back into a role that feels younger and less wise. If you can muster the strength to do it, try to let go of the tendency to identify with that feeling. Taking breaks can help. Breathe deeply and feel the sensations of your feet on the floor. Go for a walk by yourself and notice the sounds and sights around you. Do whatever you need to do to break the pattern and start fresh again.
I promise you that in the long run, the moments you speak and act from a fresh sense of vulnerability will mean much more to you and your family than the hours you spend acting out old patterns and beating yourself up inside about it.
This is mindfulness at its best — helping create a little bit more space and freedom to relate to yourself and others in ways that make you feel fully alive, which is what all of us really want in the end.
Ready to get serious about meditation?
Sign up for my weekly email on meditation and bringing mindfulness to work, relationships, and politics.
Listen to the podcast version
My podcast, Meditation for the Masses, takes meditation out of faraway monasteries, expensive retreat centers, and corporate America, and brings it to the things that matter most to people who work for a living—work, relationships, and politics. It’s mindfulness for the hustle and the class struggle.