Enjoy Those Holiday Gatherings. Wait. Did You Just Call me an Idiom?

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By Dr. Allison Belger

The holidays are a time when traditions abound, old songs are sung, old friends are contacted, and old patterns recur.  I’m not sure if I’m imagining it, but it seems that people use idioms more often during the holidays. Maybe it’s because we tend to gather with family, relying on nostalgic and familiar sayings to capture experience and revisit the past.  Idioms are, in fact, passed down from one generation to the next, so it becomes a common language we share at holiday time.  This week I’m “playing devil’s advocate,” challenging the notions behind some popular sayings, lest we get too easily seduced by old habits and traditions.

A Leopard Can’t Change its Spots (or You can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks)

Yes, it is often true that the older we get the more deeply rooted our psychology becomes and the more stuck we may be in longstanding behavioral and attitudinal patterns.  However, as I’ve written before, it’s never too late to change.  When we force ourselves to be accountable for our actions and the state of our current lives–no matter our history–we put ourselves in a position of strength:  We become empowered to direct our life’s trajectory.  Change takes time and effort, but it can happen.  Much like physical training, psychological and behavioral change requires commitment, dedication, a plan, and work, sometimes with professional help.  From my experience with older clients during my psychology doctoral training, the most exciting and rewarding work often came from people making changes later in life.

Anyone know a masters athlete who picked up gymnastics and Olympic Weightlifting at age 52 (see CrossFit for reference), or a former runner who is now a masters tennis contender? How about a couch potato-turned triathlete.  Old dogs, new tricks? Totally doable!

Follow your Gut

This one is especially rich and may be the topic for a future article.  For today’s purposes, suffice it to say that being in touch with our intuition and gut feelings is a strategy that should definitely be cultivated.  As a mom of two young girls, I am constantly hoping to instill in them an attunement to their instincts and gut feelings, as I know this can be critical for navigation of peer pressure and for their own safety out in the world.  However, there are times when we are all better served by hearing from others who possess more knowledge and expertise.   There are times when we must endure uncertainty, accept vulnerability, and welcome opportunity.  Our gut may be wary, but in domains where we are beginners with less experience, being open and ready to learn will allow us to grow and develop in positive ways.

Blood is Thicker Than Water

Yes, family bonds are unique and often unshakable.  In theory, we should be able to rely on the unconditional love, support and loyalty of our blood relatives. But blood comes with complicated expectations, relational patterns passed down through the generations, and unconscious processes.  Since we now know that old dogs CAN learn new tricks, we also learn that family members can change and grow.   This may require a move away from relatives who are stuck in longstanding, negative familial patterns.   While relationships with friends are also infused with our psychology, they are sometimes better able to survive insults, especially when the friends’ choices come from a solid sense of who they are and how they tick.  Friends and lovers are often there for us in ways family members are not.  (“We can choose our friends, but not our relatives.”)

Don’t Cry over Spilled Milk (or Keep Your Chin Up)

I would have to agree that getting overly upset about the past, especially when what happened “isn’t the end of the world,” is not advisable or helpful; wallowing in self-pity is generally not a good thing.  On the other hand, it is acceptable and important to allow ourselves to express disappointment when something has gone wrong, to address our feelings, to grieve and then to move on.  “Shaking things off” and other attempts at making ourselves move forward too quickly can sometimes backfire.  When parents do not give their children permission to process mistakes or mourn losses, the results can be devastating, leading to a different kind of spillage over time.

In sport, we must also allow ourselves to regret bad days and lament poor performances; while finding perspective is critical, acknowledging the hurt and disappointment matters, too.  See more on this topic in my previous article.  Take note: you can also lower that chin and cry on someone’s shoulder.  You may be stronger next time around.

Idle Hands are the Devil’s Tools

This one is for all of you go-getters, you Type A overachievers who feel the need to be working and busy most of the time.  Productivity is generally a great thing. Having work to do, finding creative outlets, and moving towards action for the benefit of self and others (i.e. being charitable with your time and resources) does, indeed, help many.  However, we must also remember to enjoy moments of calm and quiet—to soak in relationships and to notice internal states.  Relaxing and enjoying the fruits of your labor is not the devil’s work.  Having life pass you and your busy self right by is far more devilish. (“Be in the moment” and “Smell the roses.” Remember: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!”)

Practice Makes Perfect

This one’s easy. As my high school soccer coach used to tell us, “practice makes permanent.”  Whatever and however you practice—whether in sport or in life—you are creating pathways in your brain that become part of who you are and comprise your repertoire of behaviors and skills.  Be sure that what you are doing regularly is in keeping with how you want to function in the future. My article on random practice has some tips for shaking things up and making sure your “practice”  in training and in life is serving you well and optimizing performance.

When it Rains, It Pours (or If it’s not One Thing it’s Another)

Bad things happen. Sometimes really bad things happen.  The universe challenges us often—no doubt about it.  But it might be helpful to think about the effects of how we deal with adversity, instead of continuing to blame external factors when things go wrong.  Sometimes, one insult in our day makes us edgy enough to invite another until negativity takes over and consumes.  Ever have a flat tire that derailed your commute and then go on to fight with your co-worker at the office?  Ever hear bad news from your mom, only to lose your temper with your kid; or ever stay out late imbibing a bit too much, and get injured at the gym the next morning?  When it rains, it pours… Maybe.  But maybe when it rains, you “stir the pot” and create more intensity in the storm.  Check out my article on triggers to read about how our own “stuff” interacts with the world.  You control your weather more than you might think.  (“When the going gets tough the tough get going.”)

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Yes, it’s true that how we behave and what we DO trumps what we think and what we say most of the time.  However, as a psychologist who recognizes the significant value of putting our internal lives into words, I would argue that what we say (or write), has great power—perhaps even more power than our actions.  Making use of language to capture and interpret our experience is part of our essence as human beings.  We have this remarkable and rich tool with which to coalesce and express emotions, thoughts, and experiences that might otherwise go unprocessed and unrecognized.  Sometimes the underpinnings of our actions are unclear; words provide clarity, meaning, a way to comprehend motivation and feelings.  One of the best things parents can do for their children is to encourage the discussion of feelings, emotions and interactions.  The unspoken can be threatening and confusing for young people.  I say: speak, write, communicate.  Words have power.

So this holiday season, commit to talking with those closest to you.  Tell them how you feel and what they mean to you, and invite them to do the same.  Use one of the most powerful tools we humans have: the capacity to put emotion and experience into words.  Just don’t use too many idioms or trite sayings—they can be complicated and misleading!  And if you’ll be giving a toast or two, remember, “brevity is the soul of wit.”  But then, there’s always so much to say…


  1. Some add ons:
    1. “it may be hard to teach an old dog new tricks, it is also challenginging to teach a young Dog old tricks”.
    2. “after all is said than done, more is said than done.”
    3. “We have the family we were born into and ultimately the family we choose, choose wisely”.
    4. “We are the gatekeepers for all the toxic people, places and things we allow into our lives, guard wisely”.
    5. “Perfect practice makes perfect”.

    I enjoy your articles. Keep them coming. Happy Holidays!

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