I blame becoming a dance/movement therapist for one of the worst holidays I have ever had. Okay, that might be a tad too melodramatic. But, let me explain:
A few years ago, in my second year as a graduate student at Lesley University, Thanksgiving started out as it always does. A spirited onslaught of extended-family chaos. Friendly yelling, laughter, and catching up on each others’ lives. Then, as tends to happen, we fell into a heated debate. For the most part, I try to avoid these moments, but that year I was thrown plunk into the opposing minority. What started off as good fun quickly turned sour.
With the naiveté of a still-learning student, I was so thrilled to be honing my skills as an empathic therapist that I completely ignored the fact that I hadn’t equally developed my ability to set personal boundaries. So, while standing on my pedestal, ranting, holding my entire extended family’s attention, I stared into their faces. I unconsciously noted their body postures. I felt the tension emanating off their skins. And in doing so, I took on the emotions of 12 other people while simultaneously fighting to keep my own in check. When I finally stopped talking and left the room, I completely broke down.
As dance/movement therapists, having the ability to attune and reflect back our clients’ inner states and experiences is truly spectacular. But goodness knows I never want to be stuck in another Thanksgiving like that one! So this year, I used my dance/movement therapy training to my benefit. Instead of taking on everyone else’s stress, I focused on how to decrease my own.
These are the five steps I took to achieving a happier, more balanced holiday season.
1) Body scanning: Every morning, I did a brief body scan, starting with my toes and moving all the way up to my head. I spent a few moments with each body part, noticing how it felt and sending breath to places that felt particularly tense. Doing this first thing each morning reminded me that, no matter the chaos that may surround me, I could always come back into my body for respite.
2) Movement check-in and goal embodiment: When I felt particularly tense or stuck in my own circuitous thoughts, I snuck into a room and did a three-part movement check in. First, I expressed a movement representing how I felt in that exact moment. After spending some time with that movement, allowing it to be there without judgement, I embodied how I wanted to feel. Lastly, I asked my body what movement I could do to help me transition from where I was to where I wanted to be. Almost always, this final movement emerged as a gesture of self-acceptance and peace.
3) Grounding imagery: Of course, there were times during Thanksgiving dinner when I couldn’t sneak into a room of my own. Luckily, I anticipated this problem beforehand, and I came prepared with grounding imagery to help me feel centered in the face of exuberant family energy. My image of choice for the week of a mountain, unmoving, solid, yet rising above the chaos of the world. I also kept a small grounding stone in my pocket, which served as a reminder to check in with my stress during dinner.
4) Dancing it out: I am always down for an opportunity to put on my favorite tunes and rock out. In addition to being straight-up fun, it is an excellent way to shake out stress and emotional overload. Lucky me, Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill was re-released in November. I unabashedly love the 90s, so in Alanis’s honor I played the album on loop during my two-hour drives to and from Boston. I also threw in my all-time favorite dance it out song: Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. In addition to its groove-ability, this song always puts me in a great mood.
5) Stretching: Every night, I gave myself a chance to work out the knots that had accumulated either from driving long distances, sleeping in a bed that isn’t my own, or holding in tension built up from the day’s events. In addition to helping me physically, stretching offered my mental and emotional self some much needed care.
I wholeheartedly love my family. Using these five self-care strategies throughout my holiday visit allowed me to be with them in a fuller, more joyful way. I cannot wait to see them during the upcoming holidays, and I especially can’t wait to try out even more self-care practices!