Stay Kind for the Holidays—with a Self-Compassion Practice by Julia Menard

Woman with hands on heart in pink sweater

As the holiday season approaches, many of us start to feel excitement about returning “home” for Christmas. But I’ve also heard many sad and stressful stories about clashes and tensions that seem to inevitably come up at Christmas.

Recently I came across:

  • Someone clutching their Toxic Parents book like a bible hoping it’ll ward off evil spirits.
  • Another person was lamenting the lack of tradition in her family—saying the Holidays are like “herding cats”.
  • A third person who shared the the pain of Christmases past when their alcoholic parents were missing in action.

The holidays have a romantic veneer—made more extreme by vendors selling us ‘material’ happiness in lieu of the real thing. Yet family-gathering times can be deeply painful and even lonely for many.

So it can help to go into the holiday season not only with bright-eyed enthusiasm, but with a healthy dose of self-compassion.

Why self-compassion?

It’s becoming more widely accepted that we need to give ourselves empathy and compassion before we can extend it to another. Like the oxygen mask principle 1

And in times of increased stress, we need to be more kind to ourselves.

Research by author Kristin Neff, in her book Self-Compassion, have found that many kind, caring people are extremely self-critical, using language against themselves that they’d never say aloud to another person.

And it’s important to note that from a physical health point of view, our harsh self-judgments reduce our ability to cope with difficult situations like the Holidays, triggering thumping hearts and spikes in the stress hormone cortisol.

So, what can we do?

1 The oxygen mask principle states that when on an aircraft and those oxygen masks pop down from above, that you should put your own mask on first. That way, you are in a stable and calm place to help another. Imagine you’re trying to get that oxygen mask on a child before doing your own. They wriggle and struggle. You get increasingly stressed, are maybe struggling to breathe yourself. If you panic, you’re going to terrify your child. And if you die, your child loses its parent. So we do ourselves first.

Kristin Neff’s 3 Key Elements of Self-Compassion

Neff suggests there are three components to self-compassion and that we must achieve and combine all three in order to be truly self-compassionate. These elements are:

1) Self-Kindness

Can you talk to yourself gently rather than harshly with criticism and self-judgment?

Yes, it’s easier said than done, but with awareness you can go into the holiday season with an intention of accepting your mistakes, your pains, your tender places.

Is there a way you can remember to practice kind words to yourself? For example, a reminder note on your calendar? Perhaps buying an advent calendar for yourself and every day in December, as you open that little door, you can remind yourself to be kind!

2) Recognition of Shared Pain

A recognition that we have a common humanity, a feeling of being connected with others in the challenges of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated in our own suffering.

In the context of the holidays, I’ll use a personal example.

My family of origin is 3000 miles away, so I can often feel sad at Christmas imagining other families getting together, loving one another and basking in some sacred bond of belonging.

However, talking with those other people in the last few weeks I was reminded that, although our suffering looks different on the surface it doesn’t mean others don’t also suffer at Christmas. That gives me some compassion for myself and my situation—I am not alone in my suffering.

This is recognition of our common humanity.

So if you’re feeling that the pain in your holiday experience is unique to you, think again: Instead, remember that you’re not alone.

3) Mindfulness

For Neff, mindfulness entails seeing things for “how they are—in a balanced way—no more, no less.”

We need to be aware of our own experience and feel it—otherwise we are bound to find ways to ignore it.

Yet, if we’re not careful, we can end up not only acknowledging but exaggerating our story, and therefore suffering unnecessarily.

So, being able to notice our own thoughts and emotions allows us to recognize, then pause and soothe and comfort ourselves.

A Self-Compassion Practice for You!

If you can, starting before the holidays, it’s helpful to pause a few times a day to do this practice:

  1. Breathe deeply a few times with your hand on your heart. Feel your heart area as you breathe.
  2. After a few deep breaths, remember a moment with someone when you felt safe, loved and cherished. This could be a pet, a close friend, a saintly figure.
  3. Stay with that feeling for a few breaths until you feel the love and the trust in your body. Settle into it. Relax and breathe.
  4. Now from this place of more relaxed and open compassion, ask yourself: What am I thinking? What am I feeling? What am I needing?

Why this kind mindfulness exercise works

It might interest you to know this particular exercise does a few things. The heart has neural cells around it, so placing our hand on our heart and breathing deeply into that area activates the parasympathetic nervous system and begins to calm down the fight-flight arousal of the sympathetic nervous system.

Also, placing our hand on our heart and thinking of someone we care about primes our brain to activate the release of Oxytocin. Oxytocin is the neurochemical antidote to the stress hormone cortisol that fuels the “Fight-Flight-Freeze” response to any perceived threat or danger.

When Oxytocin is rushing through our bloodstream, the calming parasympathetic nervous system puts the brakes on our stress (the activated sympathetic nervous system).

This calms the fear response of the amygdala and our cortisol levels drop, blood pressure lowers—all is well.

Wrap-upFierce Kindness Logo

While the holidays can be beautiful and heartwarming, they can also be challenging, painful and lonely: loss, disappointment, difficult people and relationships, high expectations not met…

Remember that self-compassion is the key: start with you.

And why not start these practices now, so you create a healthy new habit and go into the holidays more mindful?

In all the great spiritual traditions, at their heart is tenderness—just to be kind inside, and then everything rights itself. Fear rests. Confusion rests. Pamela Wilson

Julia Menard Contributing author: Julia Menard, PCC, M.Ed. is a Professional Certified Coach. Julia has a Masters in Educational Psychology specializing in Leadership. She helps Leaders Transform Workplace Conflict through Coaching, Mediation and Training. To learn more about Julia and her work, check out her website And if you’re interested in communicating better and staying calm during conflicts be sure to check out Julia’s great ecourses on how to have tough conversations and how to stay cool during conflict. Lastly, join other collaborative leaders receiving regular conflict guidance by signing-up for her newsletter here.

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