While 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.
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.
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