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Beware: You are now entering a period of imbalance. As the holidays approach control of our life seems to disappear. Our lives become even more out of whack.

But while we think of that balance in terms of overwhelm and the difficulty of finding the time for everything we need to accomplish at work and in our personal lives, Jude Bijou, a marriage and family therapist in Santa Barbara, Calif., offers a different formulation worth considering.

She sees our lives – and, in particular, the holiday season – as marked by three pairs of opposite emotions:

  • Sadness or joy
  • Anger or love
  • Fear or peace

"We have a choice at every moment. We can engage in sadness, anger or fear or we can choose joy, love, and peace," she says in an interview.

Typically you might feel sadness, anger or fear through preparing for events you don't want to attend, remembering the loss of a loved one not here this year, or enduring the foibles of relatives. Sadness, anger or fear can easily mar your holidays. So you must actively seek joy, love, and peace.

The emotions all have a physical component. You feel them in your body. Indeed, she calls them e-motions – energy in motion. With fear, there might be a knot in your stomach or a chill up your spine. You need to release that physical feeling to gain the opposite emotion. If feeling fear, get a little silly, repeating loudly "whoo, whoo, whoo" – she sounds like a ghost when she says it but then laughs, because it's silly and she hopes it will make you laugh too. If sad, a cry can release that emotion, and open you up to love.

It's common during the holidays to feel anger, for example, at someone – call him Uncle Jim – who tends to be unpleasant or overly egotistical. But she counters: "I can decide how I treat that person. I can roll my eyes or avoid him or engage in argument. Or I can accept that's who he is rather than thinking it's the holidays and he should know better than to behave that way."

Keep repeating a mantra to yourself: "Uncle Jim is the way he is, not the way I want him to be." Eventually, the mantra will take hold and your attitude will shift. You will no longer be derailed by Uncle Jim, and will be open to feeling love for him and others.

Our anxiety about all we need to accomplish in the holidays – and the scarcity of time – prompts fear. Cut through that by being specific, making lists and planning carefully, which will minimize anxiety and the feeling that there's just too much to handle and not enough time. Then schedule tasks so they get done, bit by bit. Writing it all down might initially heighten anxiety but developing lists and putting when you will tackle tasks on your calendar will help you calm down. So will budgeting, to dampen fears of overspending in a frenzy of shopping. "Remember, the holiday is about joy, love and peace. You need to be involved, active. You may not like everything in the holiday preparations but you'll be calmer by organizing it," she says.

Finally you need to quell sadness and opt for joy. Perhaps Granny passed and that leaves a big hole in your heart as you think of the holidays without her. "Acknowledge the loss rather than letting the holidays seem empty. A good cry works wonders and brings us into ourselves to consider what we need to do to celebrate others this holiday. It allows us to be loving," she says.

When it comes to making a gift list, she urges you to let your heart be your guide. Close your eyes and think about each person for a moment. Hopefully your heart will come up with a gift that fits the individual – and not necessarily a material gift. A personalized poem, a short video with 10 reasons you appreciate this person, or a coupon to babysit may be a superb gift. She suggests promising not to be sarcastic with someone for the next month: "This will increase the love you feel and decrease the anger."

Be smarter with your seasonal cards, rather than allowing them to become an energy drain. Consider limiting yourself to the top 30 people or, the reverse, send to everyone but an eCard that can be passed along with one click. Or develop a schedule, 10 cards every three days, considering a personalized message with each.

Accepting too many invitations can burn you out – and lead you to overindulge in food and alcohol. Prioritize your "yeses," considering with each invitation how you really feel about the event. "Say no when it's too much," she says. And pace yourself, ensuring lots of sleep and not too much eating out or partying. You want to feel good at the end of the holidays – putting on 10 pounds will leave you feeling awful.

Above all, through the holidays, keep one message in mind, a mantra you need to repeat over and over: "This time of year is about joy, love, and peace." Finding those emotions won't occur by happenstance. You need to keep the goal front and center as you navigate the holiday rapids.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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