As we go into the holiday season, especially this year with COVID-19 preventing us from getting together with our families, most people find that they’re experiencing higher stress levels than ever before.
That’s why, in today’s episode, we thought it would be great to have our dear friend, Jon Skidmore, with us to talk about some of the challenges that are associated with this time of year and how we can make a great experience out of this year’s Christmas time. We dive into what traditions mean to us in general and why the increased level of expectations can create additional stress in our lives, as well as why we need to set certain boundaries around some of the traditions that bring more anxiety than fulfillment. Jon stresses the importance of relationships and why we should prioritize them, and he describes how we can change our narrative by playing the ‘Yes, and’ game.
Rob Shallenberger: Alright, welcome back to our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners. This is your host, Rob Shallenberger, and I’m here with my good friend, Dr. Jon Skidmore. He is a licensed psychologist, professor at Brigham Young University, therapist, and he’s had the chance to work with thousands of people over the years. And if you’ve been a consistent listener of our podcast, you also know that he’s been on several times and that together, we co-wrote a book called Conquer Anxiety. And Jon has just become a good friend over the past couple of years, as we co-wrote that book together. I’ve learned a lot from him, he has some amazing insights. And, as we go into this holiday season, I thought this would be the perfect time to get Jon on a podcast and talk about some of the challenges that are associated with this time of year. There’re so many good things about this time of year, I love this time of year, but at the same time you throw COVID into the mix, all this uncertainty, and it can be a highly emotional time of year with anxiety and stress and other things. And so, I thought this would be the perfect time to get Jon on to just talk about some of these things that could really be helpful to us as we go into this holiday season so that we can make this a great experience. So, before we jump into the questions, first of all, Jon, thanks for being here, and welcome.
Jon Skidmore: Well, it’s a pleasure to be back on your podcast, and Rob I’m just grateful to be able to share a few ideas with you and with your listeners today.
Rob Shallenberger: Yeah, well, I’m excited to have you here. You always are a person who imparts great wisdom and insight. So, let’s jump right into this. Jon, you have your practice as a psychologist, you see people all the time for different things. What are you seeing out in the landscape right now, as far as stress, anxiety, the holidays are coming up? What are you seeing out there right now? I just want to get a sense of what you’re experiencing on a day to day basis.
Jon Skidmore: Well, it’s interesting, I’m seeing some people coping very, very well. And a lot of people are. They do recognize how challenging these times are, and they’re really rolling with it and they’re still dealing with other things that are difficult. And then we’ve got another group of people that this has seemed to just intensify and irritate and frustrate everything; no matter what’s going on, it’s just become more difficult for them. Our brain when it comes to stress and anxiety is best designed and suited for the occasional rattlesnake encounter. And something that’s been going on for nine months and is going to go on for another year, we don’t know, I mean, this is a whole different kind of stress that we’re dealing with. And so, it’s really taxing all of us in terms of our ability to manage this, but it’s also bringing out in a very positive way, the need to take care of our mental health. There’s more discussion about mental health concerns, and there’s more awareness of it, and people are starting to address it in ways that they haven’t before. I can say I’ve had a lot of first-timers in my office. And that’s actually a wonderful thing because they’re getting help whereas before, they would just struggle along. And so, there’s going to be upsides and downsides to this, but the reality is, as people we’re very resilient and we’re going to learn to cope through whatever it is we’re dealing with and we get through it but the challenges are there and some people will definitely have more difficulties than others as they are dealing with everything from COVID to holidays, visiting their parents, all these different things, part of their lives that are stressful and can be stressful. And so, it’s just important to be able to step back and say, “Okay, I got to be aware of how I’m managing myself”, and really making our mental health a priority.
Rob Shallenberger: Yeah, that’s a good point, Jon. I mean, just talking about mental health in particular, you’re right. It was certainly discussed before, but not to the level that it is now, it has definitely become a topic that is more real to people. I think we’ve all seen, touched, and experienced it in ways we never did prior to 2020. That’s been my experience for me, my family, my brothers, sister, and I’ve really just seen that in a lot of different people. So, I agree with you and I’m glad you touched on it the way you did. And so, that’s why we’re doing this podcast, there’s an increased focus on mental health. And so, particularly thinking of the holiday season in the coming few weeks here. Let’s step back a little bit. So, looking at it from the 30,000-foot view, using the fighter pilot way of talking, we’re looking from the big picture. Thinking about this guiding principle or idea that you think we ought to have in the background of everything we’re doing to have a great holiday season, what would that guiding principle or idea be?
Jon Skidmore: Simply put, I would state relationships first. No matter what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, we’ve got to look at this from the perspective that our relationships with the people that are in our world that we care about, we need to prioritize them. And relationships are more important than things, they’re more important than expectations, they’re more important than gifts. It’s really basically saying, “Okay, can we put our relationships first? And can we bring a sense of gratitude to these relationships that no matter what we’re going through, can support it?”
Rob Shallenberger: Yeah, interesting, there were two separate studies that I know you’re familiar with – one from Harvard, another was a gentleman who wrote a book on this – and it was the five keys or Five Predictors of Longevity. And number one, by far and away was relationships. And I think, Jon, this has been one of the challenges with COVID, that has been so impactful in people’s mental health is what are we being told as a people. And whether we’re right or wrong, isn’t the point here. The point is, you’re taking away that element that is so critical to someone’s mental health. Relationships, don’t gather, don’t spend time with people who you love, stay home, stay isolated. So, whether or not we agree with that isn’t even the point. The point is, you’re saying that relationships are key, as a guiding principle, for happiness.
Jon Skidmore: No question about that. Loneliness is such a devastating experience and that sense of isolation. Typically, in crisis times, we draw together, we pull together, we get closer together because we are working together to get through this. And that’s one of the challenges with COVID is we’re now being told, “No, you shouldn’t get together.” I just saw something in the news about if you’re over 65, please don’t leave your house if you’re in New York City, you’re in that high-risk category. Again, it’s the relationships that are so important. And for some people, it’s very wise to isolate, but other people need to be practicing what they can to protect themselves and protect others, but at the same time, we do have means such as video conferencing, and these kinds of things that we never had before to connect. But I find this, for example, some people in my office, I’m still seeing people face to face, I’m wearing a mask, so are they. But some people will try the video conferencing and they’re like, “I just didn’t feel it just wasn’t as good, just didn’t work for me. And I prefer working with people face to face.” But, it really is a challenge in that we need to be able to recognize that in whatever ways we can, let’s stay connected. Let’s communicate. We have to deal with that because that’s really part of what’s going on right now.
Rob Shallenberger: Yeah, that’s a big one. My wife and I talked about this for hours. So, building on that, let’s just take stress in general right now. There’s a lot of stress and anxiety for people across the board, whether it’s COVID, the holidays, whatever it might be. As we go into the holidays, what would you say to a person who’s really struggling with or feeling a lot of stress right now? Because of the holidays, COVID, everything lumped on it, relationships are important. What are some of the things that people can specifically do to minimize anxiety, to minimize their stress, and really make this a great month?
Jon Skidmore: The first thing I would say is really simply put in the context of check your story. In other words, what are you saying about this? What’s the story you’re telling? What’s the story you’re making up? What’s the fantasy you’ve created about what it’s going to be like? It can be as simple as “Well, I can’t visit my grandparents, I can’t visit my parents, this is going to be terrible.” Well, that’s part of the story that you’re telling. And so, it’s really interesting to look at this and just come back and say, “Okay, let’s just pretend it’s not going to be radical, let’s put it in the category of it’s a story.”, and then step back a little way and say, “Is this a true story? Is this really true or could it be false? I can’t have a great Christmas unless all my family is around me. True or false?” And so, it’s really just stepping back and check my story. What’s the story that I’m telling? And then recognize that, well, our first response story is probably not going to be very exciting or interesting, or even the way anything close to what we would like it to be. But then the next piece would be, “Well, okay, if things are the way they are, what do I want to create with this? Or what’s the story I want to tell about this? What do I want to create with this?” And to get us thinking in terms of, let’s work in more positive directions, let’s work in more possibilities, so we can create a meaningful experience. For example, someone might say they don’t have any money for Christmas. Well, if they’re getting hung up on that, they can think they’re going to have a horrible time. But the family who only has limited funds, but yet they’re planning this meaningfully, and they’re careful, and they’re aware, and they put the relationships first can have a marvelous holiday. Whereas I always do the flip side of this is, the father who’s going to buy some gifts, passes the liquor store, spends all the money in the liquor store, spends Christmas drunk, and the family suffers. That’s a really extreme and sad example, but again, one person saying “We’re going to create a great holiday here”, another person saying, “Oh, no, this holiday, it’s ruined, it’s not going to be what is supposed to be so I’m not going to handle it and cope with it well.” So, check your story is just a great simple phrase, and give yourself permission to say, “I don’t like this story. Can I write a better one? Can I come up with a better one?” And see what happens.
Rob Shallenberger: That is such a powerful approach. Can you build on that? A couple of other tips, Jon. So, check your story. What are some other things that people can do that would help minimize, maybe not necessarily eliminate – because we don’t ever want to say we’re going to eliminate stress. We’re never going to be stress-free, there’s always going to be a level of stress and, to a degree that’s even healthy. But what can someone do to minimize those unhealthy levels of stress or anxiety? So, check your story, focusing on relationships, any other thoughts?
Jon Skidmore: We are creatures of habit, in most cases. And so, if we were to step back and say, “What are the things that traditionally have caused me the most stress in my holiday experiences?” Well, just by going back to the last five years, what has caused the stress? Is that inherent? Does it have to cause stress? Okay, what if I wanted to do something that’s not stressful? In other words, what would I have to do, and how would I have to view things differently? It might be what kind of boundaries I’ve had to set. I recently talked to somebody who in the conversation was, “What if you told your parents you were not coming home for Christmas?” Frankly, that person’s visit home was the most stressful part of the holidays. But yet, they had to set a boundary and make the decision that, “Okay, I’m home for Thanksgiving, we’re not going to my parents’ house.” Suddenly, they had a great experience within their immediate family, the stress of connecting with the bigger family wasn’t a part of it. And so, if we look at the traditions that we have, we often think of things holiday dinners, Thanksgiving dinners as a great tradition. But we need to look at some of the traditions that we’re carrying, that may not be so great and we need to set some boundaries around that. Okay, we’re going to spend less money, if that’s a concern, or we’re going to limit how long we stay somewhere, or we actually make plans to go somewhere else. But it’s really important to recognize that we want to bring traditions, we want to bring awareness of what’s going to be meaningful, is going to create the kind of relationships we want, support our relationships, and be willing to take a stand sometimes to do that. And sometimes that’s difficult.
Rob Shallenberger: Yeah, for sure it’s difficult. It’s interesting, I’m just listening to you and I’m thinking about different people who I know, inside and outside of our family. And I’m thinking of all the ways that stress is created in the examples that you’re using. So, for example, there’s someone who I know who loves to plan these immaculate meals. Everything from the setting to the decorations is just perfect, it’s aligned, it’s color-matched. I mean, it is just perfect, really. And then I’ve heard that person numerous times say how stressful it is to prepare for that dinner and how much time and effort it’s taking. And it’s not to say that that dinner is bad, there’s a huge sense of satisfaction that I’m sure she gets from that experience. But I think to what your point is, is we’ve got to set these boundaries between our expectations – what we’re going to put into it – and in our emotions, that is attached to that.
Jon Skidmore: No question about that. We need to look at what is our, I’ll say our holiday tradition around that, missed expectations about certain people, old grudges, old wounds, what are those things that we just plan for that seem to get brought up in the holiday experience. I like to tell the story of the grandma who was describing the kind of holiday dinner experience you were describing there, that was just everything to her. She puts one of the grandsons in charge of the rolls and the rolls get burned. Suddenly, grandma’s upset, she yells at the grandson who now has dad come in to protect the grandson, and boy, this is a blow-up and it’s unfortunate.
Rob Shallenberger: That goes back to what you originally said, relationships are more important than things.
Jon Skidmore: Yeah. And wouldn’t it be great if we drop the expectations, and grandma could say, “Okay, well, we’re cut the tops off, we’re serving the bottom. And let’s roll with this dinner.” But simplifying would be a great thing, especially in a general environment where there is more stress, to just step back and say, “What would be a simpler way of doing this?”, would certainly be a great rule of thumb to employ right now.
Rob Shallenberger: Yeah. I mean, if you think about at least we do a lot, obviously, with organizations. And so, if you look at a relationship with a spouse, with an employee, supervisor, whoever, one of the number one reasons for divorce, turnover, whatever, is frustration. And where does frustration usually emanate from? Misaligned expectations.
Jon Skidmore: Absolutely.
Rob Shallenberger: Person A expects one thing, Person B expects another and those don’t align, there’s frustration in the middle. And so, I loved your example of the rolls. The grandma had an expectation in her mind of this perfect dinner, the candles burning whatever. And suddenly, the rolls were burnt. Well, now there’s a misalignment of her expectation, and there’s frustration. I think it’s a good thing for all of us to check what are our expectations and what if those expectations aren’t met. Is it the end of the world? How can we shift those? And I love your question, what is causing the stress? Is the expectation one of the routes or sources of our stress in the first place? The person who I shared in that example, it took her two days to prepare for that meal. So, is that meal really worth the memories that she’s not going to have with her family? Or I like your way of saying it, could she bring others into the experience? And whatever, if people burn rolls, whatever. It’s just a good reflection for all of us. What’s causing our stress, what are our expectations where our boundaries currently set? So, I’m just thinking about that, and how that applies to me, and you’ve mentioned traditions, Jon. Any other thoughts on traditions?
Jon Skidmore: Well, traditions can also be incredibly powerful, one of my favorite holiday traditions right now – and I had some grandkids around me for Thanksgiving – is I like to do wood carvings and I’ve been making a Christmas tree ornament for my grandkids. So, this is the fifth year I’ve made Christmas ornaments and that’s a tradition they look forward to. That’s a tradition I look forward to. And so, that’s something of a very personal thing. And so, that’s one thing I would encourage you to look through today, for traditions, make them personal, make them meaningful, and to build on them. And whether this is a movie that you watch together, whether this is certain foods, whether this is places that you go, songs you sing, but to create those traditions, like, this is just what we do. Again, whenever we create the tradition, we want to make sure it’s supportive and encouraging and it’s really meaningful, it’s something that has a purpose for us. It’s not just something to do for the sake of doing; it contributes to our experience. Sometimes our traditions do need to change, but that’s what we have an opportunity to do every year. And we’d hope that as we look at meaningful relationships that build a sense of purpose. Some people love the tradition of setting goals, January 1st, other people hate it. It’s like, “Why would I want to do that?” It’s just such an important thing to look at. Are our traditions meaningful, are they supporting our goals, are they really helping us put our relationships, and what’s most important in our lives, first?
Rob Shallenberger: And I’ll add one more, are our traditions adding to or decreasing our stress?
Jon Skidmore: Oh, yes.
Rob Shallenberger: And not only that, but you think, isn’t there inherently this fine line that we need to walk between our traditions and everything we’ve been talking about with expectations? One of my traditions is I love to deliver pies around the Christmas season. Well, in my mind, I remember a couple of years ago, I said, “We’re gonna deliver 20 pies to these different families.” And my wife said, “Well, we can’t do that because I already have this and this and this planned.” I said, “Well, we’ve got to get the 20 pies out.” And so, what is there now? There’s stress, there’s friction, and everything else. In my mind, that was an unflexible tradition, you know what I mean? I had my expectation to keep going back to that word, and she had her plans and that’s where I realized I needed to taper that tradition.
Jon Skidmore: And we need to, and it’s so important to do that. One of the first rules of improvisation in the comedy scene is called “Yes, and.” And so, it’s not an “Oh, no, it shouldn’t be. Why is it happening?” It’s like, “Yes, and what are we gonna do with this?” And so, to be able to look at, “Well, we want to create meaningful connections with these families. How might we do that in a simpler way? How might we do that in a meaningful way that can meet our needs?” You can still deliver pies and maybe you’d get somebody else to bake them for you. There are so many different ways that you could do that. But it really is important to be able to just recognize that this is about relationships, this is about creating great memories. We would hope that after every holiday gathering, that we have created some great memories, and to be able to use those memories to foster and support our relationships and to be careful about creating negative memories. None of us would do that on purpose, no one would want to go sabotage a holiday experience. But it’s really like, are we going to create some good memories here – and that’s what’s meaningful.
Rob Shallenberger: It’s funny, Jon, that you’re talking about this and the pie that just happened to slip into this conversation. In that spirit, that’s kind of exactly what we’ve done. This year, we bought the pies, we didn’t make them ourselves, but if I went back two or three years ago, that would have really bothered me. Like, I felt like we had to put in the time to make these and that they needed to be warm and that was our sweat equity, which made it a special experience, but that was my fault expectation if you will. And the other thing that we’ve done is, there are still some families that will take pies too, but now we’ve made cookies and our kids will make the cookies. That takes like one 10th the effort. And so, what used to be a huge undertaking, is now pretty simple and it’s become much more of a family experience, and it really has incorporated a lot of these things that you’re talking about. So, as we get ready to wrap up here, Jon, some of the things that you’ve talked about are really focusing on relationships throughout the holidays. That’s an important thing, whether it’s our brothers, sisters, spouses, children, whoever it might be. The second is checking our stories. Is that true or is it false? And then third – I love that question – was asking ourselves, honestly, what’s caused the most stress in the past, and then setting up boundaries around that, expectations. And then the last one there that we talked about up to this point was looking at our traditions, establishing healthy traditions that people can all contribute towards, that can make it a positive experience for all involved, while at the same time tapering the expectations. So, just those few thoughts alone are great, and I really internalized that using the pie example, as just one. Any other final thoughts as we get ready to wrap this up here? Those are all good things for us to think about. Any final thoughts or tips that you have, as we go into the next three to four weeks of December here?
Jon Skidmore: It’s a really simple relationship principle. Chances are, there’s not going to be a saboteur in your group. In other words, someone’s not going to show up with the intention of ruining something or really causing a scene or creating a problem. Because sometimes our struggles, our humanity, our stresses show up and tempers are short, or words are said. It would really just be simple, or it would just be really a great thing to keep in mind, let’s recognize that these are people that we love and care about. These are people that are just as human as we are, and that we’re coming together to support each other in our humanity and our experience together to make our day a better day. And just really focus on the relationships would make a huge difference.
Rob Shallenberger: That’s great advice, Jon. Well, as we get ready to wrap up, just a couple of things. If you want to learn more about Jon, he has a website jonskidmore.com. And then I’d encourage everyone to read our book, Conquer Anxiety. That was really life-changing for me in writing that with Jon, and just the lessons learned. Here’s one that just stands out: fortune-telling and mind reading. And it’s kind of like talking about, checking our story, how often do we fortune tell and fortune-tell into the negative? Well, if we go up there, then we’re gonna get this, and if we do that, then this is gonna happen. Whoa, where’d that story just come from? We’re fortune-telling into the negative. And then the other one that I’ve seen, not only in myself but pretty much just everyone I know has done this at some point, which is mind reading. And very rarely do we mind reading the positive. It’s like, “Oh, so and so doesn’t like me. Oh, so and so’s gonna think this.” No, that’s mind-reading. And why are we mind-reading in the negative? And it’s particularly easy, it seems like, to do this when we get together with big families, and we think, “Oh, well, so and so, whatever.” Or fortune telling, which is why you’re saying check your story. So, I would just invite people to read our book, Conquer Anxiety. There are so many things in there that would be useful tips as we go into the holiday season and really even beyond into 2021. So, Jon, any parting thoughts before we wrap up?
Jon Skidmore: I just wish everybody a happy holiday season and they can just use this time to strengthen their relationships and enjoy in a simple way, everything we can for this season to support the relationships that mean most to us.
Rob Shallenberger: Yeah, that’s great. Well, thank you, Jon, for being here. We sure appreciate you, your friendship, you’re awesome. And to all of our listeners, the same goes for you. We appreciate you, the good influence that you’re having on the world regardless of where you are. And just like Jon said, let’s make this a great season and have fun, make positive memories and check ourselves. What are our stories? Are we fortune-telling, mind-reading? Are our traditions adding stress to our lives where expectations may be too high? So, I hope this has been helpful for you and that this can be a truly great holiday season for you.