Ep 130: Tips and Tricks for Surviving the Holiday Season with Dr. Georgia Witkin
Fertility Forward Episode 130:
If you’re dreading the upcoming holidays, with their awkward conversations and cringe-worthy personal questions, this episode is for you! We are joined by returning guest, Dr. Georgia Witkin to discuss some handy tips and tricks for surviving the holiday season ahead. Dr. Witkin is the Director of Psychological Services and Wellness at RMA of New York and an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Science at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Tuning in today, you’ll hear Dr. Witkin’s thoughts on why you need to stop “should-ing” and her insights for being discerning about what and with whom you share. She also highlights possible answers you can give to relatives asking questions or making uncomfortable statements about your fertility. Press play to hear these and other helpful suggestions, including the option to opt out this holiday season, and remember: base your expectations on reality and not wishful thinking. Thanks for listening and happy holidays!
Rena: Hi everyone. We are Rena and Dara, and welcome to Fertility Forward. We are part of the wellness team at RMA of New York, a fertility clinic affiliated with Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Our Fertility Forward Podcast brings together advice from medical professionals, mental health specialists, wellness experts, and patients because knowledge is power and you are your own best advocate.
Rena: We are super psyched to have on fertility Forward today, recurring guest and superwoman, Dr. Georgia Witkin, who is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai, among many other things that she does - a long and very impressive bio. And we are so excited to have her on today to talk about some tips and tricks for how to survive the holiday season. Now that it is upon us, we know that that can be a very stressful time for people, especially those that are trying to conceive. It can be super triggering.
Dr. Witkin: You are not kidding. It's bad enough for everybody. We're running approximately 20 minutes short every day during the holidays of the time we have and the time we need. And then if you're dealing with children problems or fertility problems or money problems, multiply that tenfold.
Dara: Compounding the, the stress.
Dr. Witkin: Yep. Look, you know, I've written a lot of books on women and stress and I can reduce them all into one sentence. So you can save a lot of money. When your sense of control goes down, stress goes up. If you can't predict what's coming next, stress goes up. It's all the same thing. 'cause we're wired to worry, watch, and wait and be in charge. Now imagine if you don't know about holiday traffic, you don't know what's going on in the world, you don't know what's going on when you're gonna be at your family and on top of that, you're taking hormones for fertility problems and your sister-in-law's pregnant and you have to see her during the holidays. I mean, that's some package for people who like to be in control.
Dara: I think even just, like, the family dynamics, that in itself is baseline stress. And then with all these other things compounding it, it's, it could seem overwhelming.
Dr. Witkin: Yeah. If you look at the ads that are selling us turkeys and Christmas trees, every party is happy and every family is perfect. And everybody's dancing around the tree. And here's my number one piece of advice for the holidays: remember who your family and friends are, not who you want them to be. And don't be surprised when Uncle Harry is still Uncle Harry. Make your decisions about if you're gonna share information or not share information. If you can look for sympathy, if you're not. If you're going to expect happy times or if you're gonna expect, you know, just remeet people you haven't seen in a year, base it on reality, not wishful thinking. Or you're gonna be disappointed every single year.
Rena: Oh, I love that. What a great mindset and framework.
Dr. Witkin: Let megive you the second half of that. When you go around your family, most people feel I should act this way. I should be like that. I shouldn't let them see I'm irritable or disappointed. I shouldn't be jealous. Forget the should. Stop should-ing on yourself. I mean, you don't owe anybody personal information, medical information, money information, kids information. You decide when and if you're gonna share it. And if you are like me and, Rena and Dara, I know you both for very, very long time. I like to share. I mean, I wouldn't be in the field I'm in if I didn't like to share. And sometimes when I'm face-to-face with somebody, I want the relief of catharsis. You know, I want to, like, wouldn't it be nice to get it out instead of thinking these things alone in the middle of the night in my head, let me say it. And they're gonna say, oh, “I felt that way too”. Or, “I understand”. And what I find is when I do share impulsively, number one, if they say they understand, I go to myself, oh, bologna! They don't understand because they didn't go through it. Why am I talking to them? Or I'm getting cliches back. Or I'm getting mis-advice. Like, “oh, just relax and your migraines will go away”, or “your fertility will come back”. Let me tell you, stress does not cause infertility or there'd be no humans on the face of the earth. It works the other way. Infertility causes stress. So don't believe Aunt Fannie if she's saying that. So you're going to get cliches. The other thing you get back very often is their stories. You tell your stories. Oh, you think that's bad? You should hear what happened to my sister. You should hear what happened to me. That's not what you want. So my advice is, as much as you may be tempted in the moment, particularly if you've had a drink, obviously not if you're in the middle of a fertility journey and not drinking, but still the temptation is to share. Don't share during the holidays with anyone who you wouldn't share with if you weren't thrown together in the holidays. If you know the payoff is in the past, they've been understanding and they've been helpful or they've been through the same thing, then of course, it's a great opportunity. But if they've never been helpful before, don't expect them to be helpful now. You can call one of your best friends later after you get home.
Dara: Yeah. I think, do you think it, it's a good idea to go in with some sort of game plan in case friends or family do bring up, like, hey, having any kids anytime soon? You know, are you pregnant? And I'm sure that comes up a lot during the holiday season?
Dr. Witkin: It does. And the hard part for most people is that it's hard for them to give themselves permission to not answer. We're taught since we're three years old, look people in the eye, answer their questions. And if you can't give yourself permission not to answer, I give you permission. And so does Dara and so does Rena. Because we all know that in the end, to keep your sense of control, to be right here in the present, which is the only place you really have control, you can't go around sharing with everybody. So over the years I've collected, let me see if I can find them. A lot of answers that you can give to your family that my patients say really work well. And remember, you can always tell later, but you can't UN-tell. So if you're not sure, don't. And here's some good answers if somebody says, “so are you pregnant yet”? Or, “What's happening?” Or, you can say, “oh, I'll keep you posted so you don't have to ask for updates.” Or, here's another one someone recommended: “I'll let you know when I know.” I love that one. I think that one's great. Another one: “Thanks for asking how sweet that you care.” And don't give an answer.Just, “thank you for asking. How sweet that you care.” So, and I'm sure you can think a lot on your own, but the hard part is giving yourself permission not to tell. You can say it in a funny way, you can say it. Oh, someone starts giving you, I'm on advice overload. So follow it up with what you do need. But what I do need is for you to remind me I'm strong. Or what I do need is a piece of candy right now. Or a back rub or whatever it's you want.
Dara: I like that. The follow up and letting them know what you actually do need because they're not mind readers. And I think a lot of times people, I would think, often say things that perhaps that they would want, or maybe sometimes people say things impulsively without thinking about what they would want. But I think it's hard on both sides. The people who are inquiring, it comes, you would think it comes from something from a good place. But if they're not in that situation or haven't been in that situation, they don't know what you need or what would be helpful for you.
Dr. Witkin: A hundred percent right. They sometimes feel awkward so they start babbling. All they can think of are cliches. I mean, if anybody is listening and wants to know what to say to anybody, whether it's fertility problems, a pregnancy loss, whether it's a loss of, of a dog that you love, I mean, in any situation, just repeat what the person said. If they said, “I lost my dog after 12 years, I didn't think I'd be this upset.” All you have to say is “you lost your dog to 12 years.” I'm sorry. That's it. That's what
Dara: Of course you’re upset.
Dr. Witkin: Yeah. I mean if they seem to be confused about it, but we forget that active listening means repeating what you've said. Not, you know, just saying, I understand or I hear you. Repeat what they said. It makes, it makes them feel heard. It makes, lets them hear themselves and then they feel like you do understand and you're not talking about yourself.
Rena: I think that's a great point. Yeah. Active listening. And then I think too to, I always remind people it's impact versus intention. When they get angry that someone doesn't respond in a way that they find supportive, I always say, well, it's impact versus intent. The, the impact on you wasn't good because it was triggering, but their intention was to try and make it better for you. And so always try and remember that the comments that people find insensitive, you know, like, why don't you just adopt or just relax or whatever. They're not coming from a bad place. They're trying to fix the problem for you. And so I think then it, it always circles back to setting someone up for success and telling them what you do need.
Dr. Witkin: That's wonderful advice. Tell them what you need. Absolutely. You know the saying, it doesn't count if you have to ask for it - baloney! There are three people here telling you it does count if you ask for it. If they're responding, then you know they're caring.
Dara: Do you think it's important to ahead of time to come up with like boundary setting of how to create boundaries with your friends and family?
Dr. Witkin: Yeah, I mean, one is what we were just talking about is reminding yourself that your private information is yours alone to share or to not share. We've been so trained to be polite and to answer questions and so forth. If you are going to share, I usually say to people, will you accept the burden of my sharing something with you? Once you say accept the burden, if they say yes, it's like I've committed to a deal, a contract. Because otherwise people say, if you say so, I wanna tell you something private. They'll share it with somebody else. I swear them to secrecy, he will share it with somebody else and swear them to secrecy. And soon everybody in your family or your circle knows. And it's all well-meaning, but if that matters to you that everyone would know, don't share or, or I always say, pick your listeners very carefully based on your past interaction with them or what they've been through. But I definitely would as, as you're both saying, take control upfront by saying there's a burden with this. I wanna share, are you up for that?
Dara: That's a great way of saying it. So you're kind of giving that them that warning ahead of time and they may not want that burden, so to speak.
Dr. Witkin: Exactly. As I say, if there's a doubt in your mind whether this is a good idea, don't. And, because you can always tell as we've been saying. And the other thing is this, if it's new information, whatever it is, job loss, pregnancy loss, that you're gonna need fertility treatments. If it's new to you, I don't know how the two of you feel. You'll tell me, but I would say during the holidays, don't share that easily. Because unless you've digested and have your own perspective, you're gonna be very vulnerable. You're vulnerable 'cause It's the holidays. You're vulnerable because you're going through treatment and maybe on hormones. You're vulnerable because someone else may be pregnant when you wanna be, or somebody else just got a promotion if you lost your job or whatever's going on. So I would say make sure that you're sharing information that's not fresh and new. Except, I mean, during the holidays with the groups or with families, you know, your support group or your best friend is different. What do, what do you both think about that?
Rena: I think that's great advice. I think what can be hard for people, and this is something I think that's probably people are listening and then so then they can kind of prepare, is that they feel like they get so consumed by fertility treatment and focusing on what they don't have and what they want. And it becomes their identity. And so then they struggle with, it's so consuming, they don't even know what else to share because they feel like they have nothing else going on. And so I try to help people zoom out, okay, well let's look at the past year. What have you accomplished? Wow, you, you got promoted at your job, you took this trip, you ran this race. Like whatever. Let's help you focus on the things that you do have in your life instead of that perspective of everything you don't have. So that they come prepared to share other things.
Dr. Witkin: I love that. That's, that's really gratitude also. During Covid, I was working with some of the nurses who were working on the wards and at the end of the day, the only way they can really go home and be with their families, which of course is probably the way you feel if you're going through fertility treatments and now it's Christmas or you know, Hanukkah, you're gonna be with your families, is to focus on what they did have, not what the day was like, or as you were saying, Rena, not what the treatment is like, but put your life back in its big perspective and what else have been going on that you do wanna share. And the reason I love that so much, Rena, is that you are also reminding people that there's more to them than just reproduction if that's what's going on. So it's not just for others, it's really for them too. It's, it's great advice. That's, you know, what the whole gratitude movement's about.
Dara: Yeah. Thanksgiving for a lot of people can be fraught with a lot of the sensitive subjects and you know, going in based on past, past situations or past Thanksgiving meetups. But I think even for me personally, but I think it's a great thing in general is I wanna go in this year to Thanksgiving, to my Thanksgiving meal with seeing the people around me who are gonna be there in their best light and accepting them for who they are as opposed to, ugh, this is what's gonna happen. This is what they're gonna say. Something awkward is gonna happen. It's gonna be a horrible experience. The food is gonna be whatever it may be. It's interesting how often we go in with that mindset, which I can understand maybe is a protective mechanism, but wouldn't it be interesting to go into a situation? I mean, what's Thanksgiving? It's about being grateful for the people around you and seeing people and accepting them for who they are and seeing the best in them.
Dr. Witkin: I love that, particularly if you start with yourself and accept yourself for who you are and let yourself be who you are.
Dara: That’s the most important.
Dr. Witkin: Yeah. And even if, if you're critical of your family inside your head, allow it. Not I should, I shouldn't. You know, that's the three-year-old, you shouldn't paint on the wall , you know, you keep yourself in line that way when you're three. But when you're 33, if you're listening to somebody in your family talk and you're saying to yourself, huh, they're really boring. I mean that's okay. It's not a sin. I have a different trick. Yours is not a trick. Yours is really a wonderful way to look at people in the world. Mine is a trick. I very often, when I feel like I'm dreading a situation, I go into it as if I'm watching a movie. And no matter what people are saying and doing, I'm saying, ha ha, if this was a book or if this was on tv, who would I sympathize with? How would I change so-and-so's hair, how would I write a different script or just say to myself, do you believe this? You can't write this stuff! Or whatever it is, just to give some distance. So my nerve endings are not being ennervated.
Rena: Oh I love that. That's a great trick.
Dara: That's yeah, like removing yourself.
Rena: So interesting too. Like you think about it, you know, it's one day, right? And you could be having dinner with these same people on any other day of the year, March 10th, Right? And there wouldn't be as much pressure for some reason it's this day what it symbolizes. And you have, you know, the whole social media posts. And maybe it starts to frame it as that too, right? We put so much pressure on Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, whatever it is, and it's just a day. It's a day. No different than any other
Dr. Witkin: Love it. Focus on the food, right? No, I agree. I think that that's great. So it's expectations that have to become realistic. That's what I was saying. Uncle Harry is still Uncle Harry and let him be Uncle Harry, you're saying, Dara, and I'm saying watch him as if you're writing a script and take his best stuff.
Dara: What I've heard from both of you both before as another alternative, which I thought is very interesting, is you also are allowed to remove yourself and say, you know what? This year I'm gonna be doing Thanksgiving differently without my family, without these types of friends. Honoring that too. That if you want to remove yourself, that's all right.
Rena: That's a great point. I was actually gonna ask that of you and say, what do you both think about the option of opting out?
Dr. Witkin: I totally endorse it. Totally. I would not insult anybody in your family by making them feel you don't wanna be with them 'cause It's not about them. As you were saying, Rena, you've been with them probably every year of your life on Thanksgiving. But if you need a timeout in the end, your relationship to yourself is the most primary relationship you've got. You're gonna be with yourself from the day you're born until the day you die. And you don't want to say to yourself, oh I should've, I could've, I wasn't true to myself. I let myself down. I didn't protect myself. You can start being good to other people much more easily if you're good to yourself because there isn't resentment. And so if you need to take care of yourself by starting your own tradition this year, or getting breathing room by making some excuse or being with friends who are going through the same thing, then I think it's very important that you do it which is very different than withdrawing from the world. Holidays, as you were saying, Rena, are loaded with expectations and with history and with people. If you know your family and you know they're well-meaning but intrusive and they ask cringe-worthy questions and you are not the kind of person who can say, I'll let you know when I know, or things like that, then you may need to take a time out. What do you think Rena and Dara?
Rena: I mean, I'll disclose you. I'll say I opted out of Thanksgiving last year. I find for me personally, my, my daughter, I, I share time with her dad and it was her year with her dad. And for me it's, it just brings up a lot. And so, you know, I was super lucky. I had invitations to be with family and friends last year, but I didn't feel like I could bring good energy. So I opted out, I watched a movie, I ordered some food, I took a walk, it was great. And the next day I woke up great. And you know, I explained myself to them so they didn't think I was ghosting them. I, I let them know why I was opting out, but I just felt I needed to do it. And rather than bringing bad energy around.
Dr. Witkin: Yeah and you also upped your sense of control over your life, which is great. We have so little of that feeling nowadays if we have any control over the world or our lives
Rena: And I think society puts pressure right on. We have to be doing this or we have to be doing that and no we don't. Thanksgiving holidays, they actually are, it's very quiet. It can be a great time to spend with yourself doing something introspective, reflection, maybe travel somewhere, whatever. So I think it doesn't have to be what society seems to dictate that it should.
Dr. Witkin: What I make sure I do, I mean in my family, is I always buy a game or bring a game or the kinds of things that are either trivia games so that everybody at the table is not involved with each other and it works out great 'cause it's different ages.
Rena: That's great.
Dr. Witkin: Yeah. So politics doesn't come up. Health and fertility doesn't come up. Everyone giving advice that nobody else wants doesn't come up. Yeah. It really works well.
Rena: A great idea. That's good. I love that. Yeah. Come prepared with a game and activity, something to just distract and
Dara: And include everyone, but in something that's collective.
Dr. Witkin: Right.
Dara: That unites as opposed…
Dr. Witkin: so these trivia cards are great whether you do some in sports or people can say what category they want, movies, whatever. And they do get involved and you know, I think everyone's thankful. Everyone's seen each other every year, as you were saying, Rena, all their lives. They don't have to all just sit around, face each other and ask uncomfortable questions. Time to have fun!
Rena: Yeah, exactly. Just enjoy.
Dr. Witkin: Yeah.
Dara: That's what it's about. That's what Thanksgiving's about really is to be appreciative. And it's great. You're making it fun. I think that's something that I, I may consider taking with me to my Thanksgiving dinner. I'm like, what a great way to deflect. It's that at least involves, you know, there's always people who feel somewhat left out or quiet. I think this is a great way to connect people and also involve 'em in a way that, right, does not become too personal.
Dr. Witkin: Right. When people ask you these, as I said, cringe worthy personal questions, we know that they really think they're showing that they care about you. Usually their heart's in the right place. You wonder if they hear themselves or if they listen to themselves. And that's why you can use this repeating back, not just to let somebody know you heard them and sympathize, but if you repeat back a really ridiculous question or somebody's advice, just don't even comment. We were thinking before of what you can say, like I'll let you know when I know. But you can even just repeat, like, just relax and I'll get pregnant? I mean, just repeat it back so they get a chance to hear themselves. They usually back off before you have to say, “I'm sure you'll be happy to know that working long hours does not create fertility.” Aren't you happy to know that? But you can also just repeat what they say and usually they'll go, yeah, that sounds silly.
Rena: Totally. Well, and I know Dara and I are both big fans of Don Miguel Ruiz and the Four Agreements and so one of the four agreements is don't take anything personally. And I find that, you know, I myself and clients, you know, we often run into so much trouble when we personalize something. It's never about us, right? Someone's response, someone, it's always about them. And so being able to take a step back and realize, okay, this is not about me, it's about them. So let me just kind of roll with it.
Dr. Witkin: You’ll love my grandmother's poem, I give it to every nurse I train. Everything they say and do is information about them. Not you.
Rena: Your grandma's a wise woman I love it.
Dr. Witkin: Yes. Yeah, I love it. And it really, it's helped me in life. It really has.
Rena: That's really great. I love that.
Dr. Witkin: Yeah. And when you're training as a therapist, as you both know, and we'll give you a little secret, no matter what the patient is saying and doing, we are supposed to use that as information about what they might be doing in their family or what they might be doing in the office or what they might be doing that is bringing them in to see you. So again, it's not taking it personally, it's making you even more interested. If they're getting angry easily, they might be getting angry at you, but you can say to yourself, wow, if they do this with their daughter or if they do this with their doctor, if they do this with this. So that's something else everybody can use. Whatever people are saying and doing is not only not about you, but see if it can tell you more about them.
Rena: Exactly. Exactly. Great points. Great points. And I love the tool of, of mirroring, right? Of sort of just repeating back or active listening, repeating back what somebody says.
Dr. Witkin: Yeah.
Dara: I think you have really helped our listeners. Get them ready, get them prepped. I know I'm gonna get that game now. I appreciate that. And also the mirroring. I think that's, I second what Rena, she agrees. I think it's, especially if you're in that bind and you don't really necessarily know what to say back. Mirroring what they say can be a great way to have that pause and have them hear what they just said. And that could be a great way to end that conversation or divert it to, to something else. Wow.
Dr. Witkin: That’s a perfect word for it. Mirroring. Yeah.
Dara: Mirrors. Yeah.
Dr. Witkin: Yeah. Perfect word.
Rena: Great therapeutic tool.
Dr. Witkin: Thanksgiving is about gratitude. So Dr. Witkin, what are you grateful for today and this year and the year ahead?
Dr. Witkin: To look at the big picture and to practice gratitude as we talk about it. I am so thrilled every minute that at this minute my family is healthy. Not completely, no human being is completely healthy. But in my family, in my history, my mother had a mastectomy in the thirties, hysterectomy in forties, mastectomy in fifties, thyroid cancer in her sixties, stomach cancer in her seventies. By the way, she survived them all. But it was a shock constantly and a threat constantly. And so when she used to say, don't sweat the small stuff, she meant it because there's always big stuff to worry about. So I walk around literally every day that everybody's okay, including myself. I say, wow, that is something to be thankful for, to refer back to what Rena was saying about gratitude. And number two, it puts everything into perspective from me. So I'm thankful I have that from her. And if I say, if I used to say to her something like, because I want to do something, well next life, she'll go, no, that starts tomorrow. Your next life starts tomorrow. So I always am thankful that there is a tomorrow and my next life starts again.
Dara: That's beautiful.
Rena: So beautifully said.
Dara: Rena, what about you?
Dara: I guess I'll play off what Georgia said. I love that idea of just having today and having the ability to wake up and make changes, take control of my life and move forward and have autonomy. I mean, that's a real gift and safety as, as things continue to unfold in Israel. Of course that's still on my mind. Just the idea of safety.
Dr. Witkin: Yeah.
Rena: What about you, Dara?
Dara: That's beautiful. Rena, I am especially grateful. I've been thinking about this quite a bit of the people that I've been surrounding myself with, my friends, my colleagues. I'm grateful for the people in my life because they're teachers. Kind of goes with like the mirrors - how we can learn from everyone and see how we have that in us, not only in the good, but also sometimes people who are around us who may trigger us. How perhaps we can look to see what's inside of us, that we may have a little bit of that inside of us and how we can let go of that. But really like the people I've created this community around me who have helped me grow as a person and make me the best version of myself. So I'm very grateful for that.
Dr. Witkin: It's wonderful.
Rena: Very beautiful. Lots of thanks here.
Dara: Happy holidays everyone and and Dr. Witkin, we're, we always love having you on. You really are so insightful and so caring. I'm sure the people who work with you are so appreciative, but, but we're lucky to, to work alongside you.
Dr. Witkin: And I'm lucky to have both of you as friends and colleagues, and please call me Georgia.
Rena: I know. I think this is the first time I've called you Georgia, but it just felt right.
Dr. Witkin: It's right, it's right,
Dara: Dr. Georgia.
Dr. Witkin: That's fine. That's fine.
Dara: You worked very hard for that Doctor.
Dr. Witkin: Well, happy holidays.
Rena: Happy holidays everyone.
Dara: Thank you so much for listening today and always remember: practice gratitude, give a little love to someone else and yourself, and remember you are not alone. Find us on Instagram @fertility_forward and if you're looking for more support, visit us at www.rmany.com and tune in next week for more Fertility Forward.