Sunday, 23 August 2009

Why do I get so stressed out on holiday?

When I'm writing this little blog I'm usually feeling calm, analytic and have my therapists hat firmly on, so it's easy to write about how to manage one's emotions, how to improve relationships and be a happier person. However, in my more tired and stressed-out moments I am reminded very quickly that I still have the ability to become a little obsessed about, and more than a little irritated by, "the small stuff". For me, this is never more in evidence than when I am on holiday. Like a lot of other people, my holidays are when my relationship is most vulnerable to disagreement and discord. This might seem a little contradictory, admitting this as someone who advocates the merits of taking a break, however, it has to be said that one woman's meat is another woman's poison! My idea of a break, and my partner's for example, are somewhat different. While he loves to do nothing more than to lie by the side of the pool under a baking sun, dipping in and out of the pool from time to time, I am lurking in the shade fidgeting, reading, writing or thinking (a little obsessionally I am going to admit) about what I am going to do with this down-time.

As a child, I grew up as a dancer from the age of 3 onwards and I suspect my perfectionist tendencies were molded there, ballet being notorious for shaping this kind of thinking. During any long spells of time spent at home, I'd mooch around, offering my long-suffering family large dollops of bad humour interspersed with bouts of introspection, dancing in my mind and in my bedroom. As a developing adolescent I realised that this propensity towards bad humour when inactive would have to be channelled towards doing something physical and thus I became very sporty as well as becoming moderately successful in my academic and then my professional life. I was, I reasoned, channelling my energy in to some very productive habits. In my twenties I found myself working extremely hard, studying and keeping myself in good shape with quite a disciplined regime going. By the time I hit my late twenties, I realised that I was quite bored with this, with not much to remind me that there was a bigger world out there. For a time, I gave up work, travelled, examined my own values, learned another language, took some vocational studies and generally became more relaxed through broadening my own horizons rather than just "keeping busy".

As someone who now openly acknowledges her perfectionist tendencies, I can see that my idea of being more relaxed is not necessarily my partner's! Throughout my adult life I've shared holidays with friends and family that have nearly driven me to despair through boredom of doing what many consider to be the perfect break of lying on a beach or by a pool. I usually curb this by seeking out something that I can become gainfully occupied in learning, doing or creating. During the past holidays this has manifested itself in taking sailing lessons, salsa lessons, Spanish lessons, touring nearby historic sites and so on.

With my partner, he shares his holiday between doing what he loves and doing things that we can love doing together. We are happy sailing together, we are in sunshine, on the water and whipping up a bit of speed! I have realised that I don't particularly enjoy strong sunshine and that I do not get my kick from baking to a crisp on dry land! Thankfully as a couple, we are able to find plenty of commonalities even if on a holiday that isn't my first preference. I am also able to pre-empt discord by knowing why I am feeling this way and how I can accept the down-time (my biggest challenge).

Now that I'm in my forties, I'm aware that the sort of holiday that most advertising gurus encourage us to dream of (the deserted sandy beach being fanned by palm fronds, facing an azure blue lagoon of ocean, with a limitless supply of cocktails waiting in reserve) could be guaranteed boredom for me. It will surely activate my perfectionist tendencies and before I know it I will be in the grip of one of my darker moods. As a therapist used to working with others seeking to modify their own perfectionist tendencies, I know that this is not so strange nor uncommon. We often hear about high achieving business people, academics or celebrities who do not switch off while vacationing; who do not interact particularly well with their families on holiday; and are generally happiest when busy or achieving. The upside is that for this type of person achieving feels better than relaxing, the downside is that personal relationships can be ignored and worse still damaged.

It's therefore not too hard to understand when I have a totally stressed-out client who is adamant that going on a holiday or simply taking a longer break from work will not help, in fact it could make them worse. Some might say that there is the potential for some collusion of the therapist in the client's problem. Well, yes there is, although my experience is that as someone who has struggled with this, I can also empathise; having had to work on this myself, I can help others to become aware of the less conscious thinking that is the more likely source of stress; as well as develop the potential areas for shared enjoyment with their family or partner.

My point this week is that it is not any given situation that stresses us out, or relaxes us for that matter, but rather the view that as individuals we take of it. If you and your partner share an opinion on what makes a fantastic holiday then this is great news for ensuring you have a wonderful time. Unfortunately, as I have experienced from time-to-time in my own life, if not, then it can become a recipe for disagreement and further stress. For my part, I have stopped feeling as though there is something wrong with me that I cannot bear to spend more than an hour lying on even a beautiful caribbean beach. I have been known to hate beaches, to loathe the intense heat of lying under the midday sun and I admit that I get a little mean when having someone else's holiday for too long. At times I realise that the disagreeable child my family knew and loved so well lives on! What I have managed to get to grips with however is that thankfully I really can choose to have a holiday that might be some people's idea of hard work, but is my idea of utter bliss! Being happy as a couple needn't be doing the same things on holiday. In fact, for couples like myself and my partner, the answer is often is to find out what we can share and enjoy together and to accept the things that we cannot.

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