Our friend Amy Brown is not only a Thrive Trainer but co-author of the upcoming book Relational Skills in the Bible with my husband, Chris. I asked her to share some of her story and some pointers on how to use the skill of Appreciation during our holiday this year. Blessings on your Thanksgiving!
When I was a child, holidays were spent with a large, extended family, so that is what I grew to expect for Thanksgiving and Christmas – dozens of family members laughing, telling jokes and old stories, eating delicious favorites (turkey and dressing, pecan pie, ambrosia with fresh coconut, apples, and oranges), watching football games, napping, but most of all – together.
My grandparents lived in small-town southern Alabama (To Kill a Mockingbird was written in a town 30 miles away) and early morning hunting was a Thanksgiving tradition. So was passing around the Christmas Sock – a stocking full of family members’ names, so that each person would receive a special secret gift on Christmas when all of us would be together again for Round Two of the festivities. For our family, both Thanksgiving and Christmas consisted of long drives to see grandparents, children sleeping on pallets made of homemade quilts in front of a gas fireplace, tables in every room groaning with food, and lots of friendly chatter throughout my grandparents’ house, spilling out onto the big front porch where swings and rocking chairs were plentiful.
When I married and had children, we continued the tradition, although I now had two wonderful extended families with whom to visit. We easily worked out schedules for visits, and our children had cousins to play with, lots of food to enjoy, plenty of laughter, and yes, football games and naps. Holidays were like a Hallmark movie in those years.
However, due to our lack of ability to navigate negative emotions and resolve problems, my marriage ended when my children were still young. We did the best we could to make sure both of us spent time with our children on the holidays, and that the children would see both sets of grandparents. Even so, holidays were no longer a Hallmark movie. Self-pity, anger, shame, and attachment pain from missing the children or the ex-family members reared their ugly heads and made life more like a Jerry Springer episode at times.
Experiencing holidays alone and in a non-relational frame of mind is a miserable experience but thank goodness our frame of mind is something we can change over time.
In those first holidays after my divorce, I really would have benefited from relational skills, emotional maturity, and particularly the power of appreciation. Thank goodness for THRIVEtoday and their relational skill training. Over the past ten years, my mindset has been radically changed, my capacity to face difficult situations has grown, and my sense of God’s presence is more constant than at the beginning of those ten years.
Here are some things I’ve learned and practiced about appreciation that have changed my default frame of mind:
- When I can’t feel appreciation, it’s a sign that my relational circuits are off, which means I’m not able to sense attunement from God and people. In other words, when my relational circuits are off, I feel alone, even if others want to connect to me. During those difficult holidays, my relational circuits were off, and I felt alone as if no one cared about my pain.
- Other things I’m missing when my relational circuits are off? I’m cut off from the part of the brain that can quiet negative emotions, know what it’s like my best self to do, remember consequences and make good decisions for ourselves and those around us.
- Returning to the relational mode is my first job when I’m in a painful situation. There are both physical and emotional components to restoring my relational circuits – the Shalom My Body exercises (found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_h42NC5sFE) calm my body, which in turn begins to restore my ability to connect to God and people.
- Once I’ve calmed my body, I can often return my mind to a state of appreciation by focusing on a memory of when I felt appreciation – when I felt connected, joyful, peaceful, and/or accepted.
- Thinking of a specific memory is much more useful for activating appreciation than a general “gratitude list.” Rather than, “I’m thankful for my grandchildren,” I think of a specific memory with one of my grandchildren, such as “Snuggling with Finley last Saturday morning” or “making a traveler’s notebook with Harper.”
- I keep a list of appreciation memories in my purse so that if I’m having a hard time, I can “jumpstart” appreciation by reading a few memories from the past.
- As I think about my appreciation memory, I enter into the memory by thinking of how I felt in my emotions and my body during that time. As a general rule, I find that within a few minutes, appreciation and relational mode are both restored, and I’m better able to face the situation that put me into a non-relational mode in the first place. When I can share my appreciation story with a friend, my relational circuits shine even brighter!
- If you’d like to reset your brain’s normal to appreciation, practice focusing on your appreciation memories for five full minutes, three times a day, and within a month, you’ll notice that your brain looks for the good in your environment and finds things to appreciate.
When our holidays aren’t what we hoped for or expected, it’s good to recognize that our joy buckets may be low. Holidays can be times of high expectations, extra expenses and activities, overscheduling and challenging relational interactions, and all these things drain our capacity, our joy bucket. Also, attachment pain may cause us to feel disconnected, even in a group, and we might feel restless, irritable, sad, and frustrated, and not recognize it as attachment pain.
In addition to practicing appreciation on a regular basis, here are a few things we can do to keep our joy buckets full and avoid holiday pain:
- Spend time alone with God – use an advent devotional to guide your time, or use Immanuel Journaling on a regular basis
- Set up short visits or phone calls with healthy friends or take advantage of technology and schedule a video visit
- Listen to Christmas music or other music from joyful, peaceful times in your life
- Get outside and enjoy nature
- Light scented candles that bring to mind a peaceful time and sit quietly for ten minutes
- Take time to be alone, especially if you are an introvert and need this alone time to recharge
We at THRIVEtoday wish you a beautiful Thanksgiving with our Father from whom all good gifts flow.
 Relational circuits – we stay in a relational mode as long as we have the capacity to deal with our circumstance, then our relational circuits dim or go off, and we are in non-relational mode until we restore our circuits.