The Least Wonderful Time of the Year?

Person with long auburn hair sits in window, wrapped in red and white plaid blanket, inhaling steam from hot drinkWhile the holidays can be a source of joy and merriment for some, for others the season is a time of stress, sadness, and irritation. I reached out to friends and colleagues to get a better understanding of the individual struggles that contribute to holiday distress so I could be more equipped to help people for whom this time of year is a grind. There were a few common themes that tended to recur in their responses, including unrealistic expectations, grief and loss, and conflict in relationships. Below, I explore each of these difficulties and how one might attempt to address them.

Unrealistic Expectations

Movies, songs, and television shows depict stories of miracles and blinding joy that can leave people feeling like their holidays are falling short if anything less than magical transpires. Parents often want the perfect gifts for their children, in some cases perhaps to offset their own childhood disappointments. This can lead to overspending and overwhelm. When something inevitably cannot be completed as planned or expected, there can be the perception of a holiday fail.

One way to confront this dilemma is to notice within yourself what motivates you to do something. Slow down, take a moment, and think before you act. Are you considering buying that gift to make up for feeling guilty or to buy someone’s affection? What would happen if you did not go to every party or buy that thing you cannot afford? Once you notice the motivation behind an action, you have an opportunity to change the behavior or address an underlying feeling.

Grief and Loss

Holidays are often a time for people to be with friends and family, which can heighten feelings of grief and loss for those who have died. Obviously, there is nothing that can bring a loved one back. However, it can be helpful to take time to honor and process any feelings you might have.

Perhaps you might even develop a tradition around the holidays in a deceased loved one’s honor. If there is an activity you used to do with that person, perhaps you might now do that with others to remember your loved one. For example, if your grandmother always made gingerbread cookies for Christmas or latkes for Hanukkah, consider making them yourself with your partner, siblings, children, or friends. If you are feeling lonely, consider ways to connect with others, perhaps through volunteering or participating in an activity you enjoy.

Conflicts in Relationships

As one of my favorite professors told me, “You are an adult. You are in charge now.” This means you have the freedom of choice in many situations, even if you have not connected with that power or fear the consequences of it.

Holidays can create a feeling of mandatory contact with family members with whom you might have a strained relationship. If family members do not share the same faith, there could be added difficulty when trying to decide which holiday(s) to celebrate and how. Such circumstances can make the season feel like a time of annual clashing, exacerbating long-standing differences. Many struggle with balancing self-care (including time away from these situations) and trying to overcome those issues for themselves and other family members.

There is no clear or easy solution to these challenges. A healthy way to cope is to manage your expectations. If there is one person in the family who is always antagonistic, it is unlikely they will change just because the holidays have arrived. Additionally, while you might want to please other family members by taking part in the festivities as though nothing bothers you, that is also unrealistic. Consider ways you might participate in a family gathering while also caring for yourself. For example, if your mother insists that you spend Christmas with her but going to her home is extremely stressful, perhaps you decide to spend a few hours with her and develop another tradition you enjoy doing after you leave (like going to the movies). Do your best to maintain boundaries.

As one of my favorite professors told me, “You are an adult. You are in charge now.” This means you have the freedom of choice in many situations, even if you have not connected with that power or fear the consequences of it. Do your best to find joy for yourself, even if you must grit your teeth during a gathering here or there. Your happiness is important, too. Modeling self-care for others, particularly for any children you might have, is a wonderful lesson that can be learned as you navigate challenging holiday situations.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ashley Curiel, PsyD, therapist in Beverly Hills, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • barbara

    December 16th, 2016 at 11:34 AM

    I lost my husband to cancer this year and every holiday that has come around since he died has just been terrible. I know that each one that goes by will get easier but right now it does not feel that way at all.

    I took care of him for four years while he was sick and I feel like an extension of myself has been lost.

  • Dr. Ashley Curiel

    Dr. Ashley Curiel

    December 18th, 2016 at 9:36 PM

    I’m very sorry for your loss, Barbara. I hope that you have found good support to help you through this difficult time. Therapy and support groups for grief can be helpful. I am sending healing thoughts your way. Thank you for reading and responding.

  • Paige

    December 16th, 2016 at 5:52 PM

    Oh yeah the holidays for me are never quite what the movies make it out to be

  • Dr. Ashley Curiel

    Dr. Ashley Curiel

    December 18th, 2016 at 9:37 PM

    Even if it is not like the movies, I hope you find some joy this holiday season. Thank you for reading and sharing!

  • Jo

    December 16th, 2016 at 8:51 PM

    Barbara, so sorry to read that, must be really tough. In my experience it doesn’t really get easier, its more that you change and grow into where he used to be, and then change some more so it becomes over time less intense but I would not expect it to be less for awhile, if it is then fine but everyone grieves differently. I thought well I’ve done everything for him and I’m not sick but still there was so much for me to deal with because him going changed everything including me and thats not something you can know anything about until it happens to you. So easy does it, and take very good care of you

  • Dr. Ashley Curiel

    Dr. Ashley Curiel

    December 18th, 2016 at 9:40 PM

    Thank you for sharing and offering support, Jo! I greatly appreciate your kindness. I wish you well this holiday season.

  • barbara

    December 19th, 2016 at 7:57 AM

    Thanks Jo. I have already had to go through Thanksgiving and his birthday and today is my birthday, the first one in 60 years that he isn’t a part of so I feel sad today.

  • Casey

    December 20th, 2016 at 8:32 AM

    My marriage is really not going through a great time right now and the financial pressure of this time of year is making it even harder.

    It makes me wonder if we will be able to survive this or if it means it will all be over.

  • Dr. Ashley Curiel

    Dr. Ashley Curiel

    December 22nd, 2016 at 6:17 PM

    Thank you for your honesty and openness, Casey. I hope that you are able to find a therapist and/or other means of support to help you through this difficult time. I’m sending healing thoughts your way.

  • trudy

    December 21st, 2016 at 10:11 AM

    For some people this is always going to be a magical season.
    But for others of us it hurts too much to ever enjoy it.
    Both of my parents died when I was young so Christmas for me always meant shuttling from home to home just whoever had an extra seat at the table for me that year.
    I guess that is why I don’t like to go anywhere during Christmas because when I was young it never felt like I had a place to call my own and that was hard growing up and not really feeling like I was wanted or loved.
    I’m sure looking back that I was but it’s not the same as it would be with your own parents and I missed out on most of that.

  • Dr. Ashley Curiel

    Dr. Ashley Curiel

    December 22nd, 2016 at 6:34 PM

    Thank you for sharing, Trudy. I’m sorry to hear about your childhood experiences with the holidays. I can understand how that has put a cloud over the holiday season going forward. I hope that you are able to establish some holiday traditions as an adult that help you to feel a sense of comfort and belonging.

  • Patricia

    December 22nd, 2016 at 6:24 AM

    I tell myself that at least I am alive and well which is so much better than what any other alternative could be.

    So overall I am happy to have another day.

  • Dr. Ashley Curiel

    Dr. Ashley Curiel

    December 22nd, 2016 at 6:36 PM

    So true! I hope you find joy and meaning this holiday season. Thank you for reading and responding!

  • Sam

    December 23rd, 2016 at 8:36 AM

    Sometimes you just don’t even have the energy to put on that happy face for others.
    It can be so much easier and honestly just truer to who you are and what you are feeling to allow yourself to experience that which you are actually feeling.

  • andrew

    December 24th, 2016 at 6:28 AM

    awww I really wish that we could let the sad parts of our lives go for even just a day and enjoy the holidays

  • Sims

    December 26th, 2016 at 1:45 PM

    If you are sad and unhappy then there really is no such thing as a great time of the year.
    Most of the time you are simply going through the motions.
    This is not me being critical, it is a fact that when you are sad, then it really doesn’t matter what day of the week or month it is.

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