Today I’m going to teach you the tools to not only survive the holiday season with your family but to thrive through that season.

When we’re back with our families we often get caught up in old emotional patterns (this is why I used to always turn into my teenage self as soon as I was back around the familial Channukah table) and it can be hard to break those emotional habits.

The reason this time of the year is extra hard is because of something called the “Holiday Shmear.” This term was coined by Eve Ekman, the Director of Training over at the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley (an awesome resource packed with research-based articles about how to live a happy, fulfilled life if you haven’t checked it out yet).

The Holiday Shmear is that lovely combination of shame and fear that so many of us experience around the holidays. We most commonly feel it when we’re interacting with our families, but it can also show up with all our perfectionism and control issues around this time of year (or maybe that’s just me).

So, let’s break down the two components of the Holiday Shmear:

Let’s Talk Fear

Fear is there to alert you to any potential threats to your well-being. The problem is that this is ancient hard-wiring so what your brain perceives as a threat is pretty broad. Originally, this fear mechanism was all about your physical well-being, which isn’t really an issue anymore since you’re not running from wild animals trying to eat you. However, your emotional well-being is another story (I don’t know about you but those people at parties can feel like wild animals trying to devour me sometimes). 

So, you might sit at your holiday table worrying that your mom is going to ask why you and your partner aren’t married yet. Or maybe your dad is going to ask about your job. Or maybe Uncle Harry is going to wonder why your son doesn’t want to hug everyone anymore – is there something wrong with him?

In all this wondering, we’re bracing for impact. Really what’s going on is that we feel that we’re going to need to defend our life choices:

  • “We’re not married yet because neither of us feels quite ready. We’ve got things to work out first that are none of your business!”
  • “Even though you don’t see a future with my current job, I really love it and I don’t want the stress of a higher-paying job right now.”
  • And, “He’s not hugging you because he’s 13 and that’s what 13-year-old boys do!”

If you were in the here and now, just eating your dinner, you might actually enjoy it (believe it or not)! But all the worrying and trying to figure out what you’re going to say if X or Y happens, is keeping you scared and on-edge which leads to all the old behavior patterns you swear don’t exhibit anywhere else!

In these moments, you’re not in the present. Instead, you’re either traveling back in time or worried about the future.


Shame is different from fear. Shame is one of those things you likely don’t realize you’re feeling because it’s not what you think it is. You might be thinking, “I don’t feel shame – I’ve done nothing wrong to be ashamed of!”

But you don’t have to do anything wrong to feel shame. Shame is all about being self-conscious. We feel shame any time we perceive we’re being judged. It’s not that I’m parenting badly it’s that I’m a bad person/parent (I really don’t know what I’m doing and now I’m being called out)!

As Ekman says,

In shame we imagine an ‘other’ outside person who is judging us as bad or wrong—not that we do bad or wrong but that we are fundamentally bad. This is enormously threatening to our sense of self and even hits a core survival fear: If we are truly wrong, we won’t be loved or accepted.”

Brene Brown talks about how shame shuts us down and makes us harder on ourselves than anyone else would ever be. That’s one of those things that really hits home with me.

So what do I do?

The key is that you do different things to heal fear and shame.

With fear, it’s about looking at the situation differently. We know from the research that telling yourself to “just stop” acting or thinking this way, or otherwise trying to quash these feelings, doesn’t work. In fact, it can make these thought patterns worse! Instead, you want to get in your moments with a kind, clear assessment of what’s really going on.

This is when you say something like, “My dad loves me, and he’s just worried about me. He doesn’t mean to be shaming about my job choices, he just doesn’t have better tools to express his feelings. Heck, he probably doesn’t even realize how he’s feeling!”

With shame, we need to go all in with kindness, gentleness and compassion with yourself and those around you. I call this the Love Bomb and it has magical powers.

The Three-Step Process to Thrive Through the Holidays

It’s time to put all this learning into action. My secret to thriving at holiday gatherings (and really any time I’m feeling anxious or stressed going into a situation), is to do this three-step process:

Step One: Be Prepared Before You Go

There are 3 specific things you need to do before you walk into that holiday gathering:

  1. Have an exit plan. Tell your family before you arrive that you’ll only be staying until 8:00pm or have some other clear boundary about how long you’ll be there before you arrive. You can also take someone with you who will be supportive while you’re there and can be that reason you need to go (taking the blame off of you and putting it squarely on your friend’s shoulders – hey, that’s what friends are for sometimes).
  2. Set Intention before you walk in. I’ve said a lot about setting intention, which I also call the 18-Second Shift. For a refresher, you can check out this quick video all about it.
  3. Be ready with fun topics. If the conversation goes south, you want to be able to change the subject quickly and easily. Trying to do that in the moment can be very difficult since that fear brain kicks in and it’s hard to think. So, have some stories or questions ready in your mind. Questions are the best because people like to talk about themselves and, before you know it, the focus will be off of you!

Step Two: Be Prepared When You’re There

  1. Calming Anchor. One of my favorite tools in the world is a Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) technique called anchoring. I’ve adapted this to something I call the Calming Anchor (see below). Practice it for five minutes a day for one week before the holidays and you’ll have an easy-to-use tool to calm yourself in seconds.
  2. Check in with yourself often. You’ve got to be mindful to remember all these great tools. So set a reminder on your phone for every 30 minutes while you’re at a gathering and check in with yourself when you hear that tone.
  3. Take a time out. Really, I should call this a “time in.” Take some breaks to get yourself away if things are feeling stressful. You can walk outside or go to the bathroom and splash some cold water on your face. Anything to change the scenery for just a moment and catch your breath.
  4. Don’t drink or eat too much. In any kind of potentially stressful situation, it’s important to keep your wits about you. Alcohol focuses emotions and makes them stronger so drinking when you’re anxious will initially “take the edge off” but will soon create more stress (and you might say things with your lower inhibitions that exacerbate the situation). Eating too much does the same. Try not to check out and to be as present as possible.

Step Three: What to do After

  1. Review. After you get home or are driving home in the car with your best friend, identify two positive things that happened at the gathering and two things you’d like to improve. This is a great way to stay in the reality of what happened and not let your mind chatter over much.
  2. Work on Forgiveness. At the end of the day, we often need to work on forgiveness with our families, partners, friends, and ourselves. You can work on this yourself or check out my Master Class on Forgiveness.
  3. Get help. It’s always great to seek out professional help if you have ongoing issues with your family or mental health at these types of events. Get yourself a therapist or join a support group if you need more.

Enter your name and email below to get my quick tips on the Calming Anchor.

 Ready to find out what goes on inside that crazy mind of Abby’s? 

Get your weekly newsletter with all things Abby and life

Subscribe today to get my weekly thoughts, best practices and funny stories (you won’t believe my life!). This weekly reminder will keep you on the path to creating connected, happy relationships (especially the one with yourself)!

You have Successfully Subscribed!