7 Strategies to Survive the Holidays When You’re Hurting

Rear view of person walking dog down path under trees decorated with lightsMy wife is having an affair. It hurts.

I wonder if we’ll make it to next Christmas. I’m so sad. This could be our last holiday together.

I want to divorce my husband, but I have to wait until after the holidays. The anxiety is killing me.

This is the first year since we split. Everything’s changed. It’ll never be the same.

My kids are going to be with my ex for the holiday. I feel so lonely.

As a relationship therapist, these are the kinds of things I hear from individuals and couples in my practice.

The holidays can be incredibly painful when you’re hurting.

In your mind’s eye, you picture everyone else having a jolly time—cheerful and excited; enjoying the holiday season; decorating; cooking; singing; giving and receiving gifts. Yet you are suffering. You feel so alone. You may have sad or anxious thoughts, such as:

There is nothing to celebrate this year.

I’m so depressed; I just want to stay in bed.

I don’t want to decorate.

I’d like to go to sleep and wake up when it’s all over.

I’m going to skip the holidays this year.

I’m so isolated.

I want you to know that although you feel alone, you are not. There are many people who feel sad, depressed, or anxious this time of year.

When life is on the upswing, the holidays may bring added joy and happiness. But when that’s not the case, the holidays may highlight your unhappiness and distress, especially if you are facing the loss or potential loss of a significant relationship. After all, the holidays are not really about the gifts, the songs, or the pretty decorations. They are about the relationships we have, the people we are giving to or receiving from. They are about sharing the songs and the decorations with others, about eating the latkes or drinking the eggnog together.

I recall one of the times I hurt during the holidays. I grew up in Baltimore. My dad was a cardiovascular surgeon who specialized in emergency medicine. Several years after my parents’ divorce, my dad was offered an opportunity to develop an emergency trauma center at the University of Oklahoma, similar to the Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. I understood why he couldn’t pass up this opportunity, though it meant he would live 1,334 miles away. He left. As a going-away gift, I gave him an album with pictures of me and my siblings.

It was hard that first year. I went out to visit in December. He and my stepmother hadn’t made any close friends. So, for the holidays they had an “orphan’s dinner.” They rounded up people they worked with and neighbors who didn’t have family locally and invited them to bring a dish to the dinner—and they had to dress like orphans. It was actually fun and we had a very nice time. It’s one of the memories that has stayed with me. I admired the creativity. Instead of focusing on their loneliness, they created a new tradition, which went on for years.

If you are hurting because your relationships are not on solid ground this year, you have some choices to make. You have some control.

Here are seven strategies to survive the holidays when you are hurting:

1. Accept Your Feelings

Sit with your feelings and acknowledge them. Even the most intense feelings will lessen over time. After unthinkable losses, people are more resilient than they imagine. In my practice, I’ve journeyed with people for 25 years through tremendous hurts and losses, through the most painful periods in their lives. I’ve had my own share of pain and losses, too. We can’t imagine surviving them until we do. And then we thrive once again.

2. Be Kind to Yourself

At difficult times, we are more likely to think negatively, to criticize or berate ourselves. Thoughts start with, “If only I had …”; “I wish I would have …”; “I’m worthless because …”; “I’m a failure because …” Validate your feelings; they’re real. But don’t stop there. Work on changing your thoughts to more positive ones. Ask yourself, “If my child or best friend was saying these things, what would I tell them?” Tell those things to yourself. Love and embrace yourself and your inner child.

3. Take the Stress Off

Often, we put pressure on ourselves, especially when it comes to cooking and gifts. Do you:

  • Think you should make every dish instead of asking others to bring something?
  • Believe all the dishes and desserts should be homemade from scratch?
  • Obsess about getting the “perfect gift”?
  • Spend more money than you can realistically afford?
  • Wrap every gift meticulously?
  • Go overboard on cleaning and decorating?
  • Feel you have to attend every function you’re invited to?

Take the pressure off. These are things you can control. Buy some ready-made food. Ask others to bring a dish or dessert. Get the “good enough” gift. Do less decorating, wrapping, cleaning. Or say, “I wish I could host this year, but I can’t.”

When you are hurting, reach out to friends or family for support, even if you have to push yourself.

4. Connect with Others

When you are hurting, reach out to friends or family for support, even if you have to push yourself. Feeling connected to others is often what soothes our pain. Go to some of the events you’re invited to, even if you stay for only a short time. Remind yourself the holidays are about sharing with others.

5. Start New Traditions

The one thing we can count on is life always changes. Eventually, all traditions end. Kids grow up, marriages end, a family member passes away, and your children start their own families. Traditions feel good because they are familiar. They reassure us that the world is safe, that there is something we can count on. Many of us don’t like change, but none of us can escape the fact all traditions change eventually.

6. Help Others

One of the best ways to not feel isolated is to volunteer where others need help. Work in a soup kitchen, serving meals to people who are poor or homeless. Find a charitable or religious organization in your community and attend an event to pitch in. Volunteer at a hospital. These acts of kindness not only help the community, they serve to remind you that you are not alone and there are people who have suffered (or are suffering) more than you. This is not meant to invalidate your own suffering, but to remind yourself that pain is a part of life—and it will pass. Helping others may give you a different perspective on your suffering and make you feel more connected.

7. Practice Self-Care

When you don’t have anyone there to care for you, you must care for yourself. Being alone won’t last forever, even if it feels that way. Some suggestions:

  • Cook your favorite meal.
  • Try not to overeat.
  • Get seven to eight hours of sleep.
  • Meditate or listen to soothing music.
  • Stay away from alcohol; it’s a depressant.
  • Don’t use drugs to cover up the hurt. You may only create another problem for yourself and your family.
  • Treat yourself to something special that you wouldn’t ordinarily do—a show, a pedicure, a spa day.
  • Explore nature. Bundle up and go for a walk. Breathe in the cold air. Practice mindfulness.

Now it’s your turn. What are you going to do to survive the holidays? If you need help, therapists are here to support you.

“What’s difficult in life is to stay centered when somebody does or says something that tempts us to close our hearts because their heart was closed. That is hard. But that is also how we grow. We go through those circumstances in order to evolve into people who can hold to our loving center no matter what the world throws us.” —Marianne Williamson

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lori W. Hollander, LCSW-C, BCD, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

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.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Mara Q

    December 12th, 2017 at 11:49 AM

    Wait, so do soup kitchens really let you volunteer one night and then leave? You don’t have to do an “X hours a month” commitment? Or do any kind of food-handling seminar?

  • Lori Hollander

    December 12th, 2017 at 4:22 PM

    Mara, That’s a good question. If you are interested in doing that I would call your local soup kitchen and ask. I would also call local religious organizations since they may have groups that do this kind of work. Take care, Lori

  • Jen

    December 19th, 2017 at 8:45 PM

    You can also go to volunteermatch.com to find 1 time volunteer opportunities in your area. I have done this numerous times when I’ve moved somewhere new and craved connection/community.

  • Lori Hollander

    December 20th, 2017 at 8:34 AM

    Jen, Thanks so much for that information!! Lori

  • emily

    December 12th, 2017 at 1:03 PM

    The holidays are the hardest time for me becausee it’s when my dad passed and I remember it every year and it makes me sad. Everyone else is so happy this time of year I feel left out angry sometimes. I usually try to go on vacation away from some of it when I can afford it and change of scene is good to keep me from feeling so sad

  • Lori Hollander

    December 12th, 2017 at 4:25 PM

    Emily, It is so hard when we connect the loss of someone close to a holiday, especially Christmas. I know there are others out there who feel the same. It’s very painful. A therapist might help. Take care, Lori

  • margi

    December 14th, 2017 at 8:17 PM

    both of my folks passed 12/21 9 years apart and in 2013 my husband of 30 years passed unexpectedly the week before Thanksgiving. i understand how lonely the holidays are for some of us, i have no siblings or children. I’ve learned to coup using many of the suggestions you mentioned. i buy myself gifts and make my favorite meal, i do decorate but only what i can handle and i try to ignore my sorrow by visiting friends and watching only “happy ” tv….. skip drama or year jerkers because i certainly don’t need any help with that! Try to be around people you feel comfortable with and don’t be afraid to leave the area if you need to regroup and most likely you will. Press on and think of spring!
    good luck to everyone and know you’re not alone there are many many of us out there.

  • Lori Hollander

    December 20th, 2017 at 8:41 AM

    Margi, Thanks so much for sharing your story. I’m so sorry for your tremendous losses. You are a role model for others who are having a difficult time finding connection. Helping others soothes some of our pain and your comment does just that. I appreciate it. Lori

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