Ho, Ho, No! When the Holiday Season Doesn’t Work For You
I’ve written before about the stresses of the holiday season and as I start this article, I wonder if I actually have anything new to say. Maybe not. Like many things in life, though, sometimes I like to proceed without exactly knowing where things are going to go, which has proved to be an interesting way in tackling my anxiety over the years.
Being a therapist makes me feel sometimes that therapists either look at the world differently or encounter certain issues in a proportionally higher rate than the general population or maybe a bit of both.
From over 20 years of working in mental health, I have heard a lot of stories which have, admittedly, skewed more in the direction of holidays being less than ideal for folks.
So I thought it might be interesting take a look at reasons why holidays may not work so well, including some commonly associated feelings, although of course they may be a happily anticipated time of year so you may want to end here 🙂
Holiday Hype and Expectations
My experience is based in living in what we call Canada. Themes in advertising, messages from well-wishers, stories/tales, art and other cultural events (mostly) tell us that the holidays are a time of togetherness, merriment and the value of family, where people come together and bond magically.
Possible associated feelings include: Sadness, guilt, shame, longing/envy; Pressure to get into the spirit; Performative feelings – internal pressure to act a certain way when you don’t feel it; Panic, anger or other feelings, if trying to meet the above expectations when you are facing systemic barriers like poverty
1. Challenging Interpersonal Relationships
At other times of the year we may find it simpler to keep our distance from others in our life that cross our boundaries, create drama or otherwise are unpleasant to be around. Challenging interpersonal relationships, when paired with the expectations of the holiday season, increase pressure that interactions go well, even when historically they have not.
Possible associated feelings include: Anger, frustration, resentment, fear, worry, confusion; A triggered state highlighted by a response of fight, flight, freeze.
2. Unresolved Issues
Sometimes interpersonal relationships are particularly challenging because of unresolved issues between family members or friends; if we add pressure to resolve these issues because conflict is not seen as compatible with holiday spirit, we may find ourselves in an emotional pressure-cooker. And, if alcohol or other substances are part of the mix and inhibitions are down, issues can surface and be explosive.
Possible associated feelings include: Fear, dread, anger, sanctimony, grief, hurt; Feeling triggered when you see the person or think of them or the unresolved conflict.
3. Family Trauma or Other Unsafe People
This is an article all to its own, but in brief, seeing previous family members who have done you harm and then being/feeling forced to interact with them, with the additional pressure of being “happy” about it, is not only too much to bear for many folks, but is generally emotionally harmful, and in some cases, dangerous.
Possible associated feelings include: Alarm, panic, wariness, guardedness, despair, fear; A triggered state highlighted by a response of fight, flight, freeze/dissociation.
Terrible Previous Holidays
Sometimes it is the memory of unpleasant events related to previous holiday seasons that has spoiled our sense of faith in the holidays.
Possible associated feelings include: Dread, anger, fear, sadness; Mental rumination/obsessive thoughts about the past.
One thing that Western society generally fails to recognize, but is felt almost universally, is the impact of the loss of loved one, come holiday time. Grief may even be heightened if the loss has occurred around the holiday season or if it is the first holiday without the person you have lost.
Survivors may be in situations where it seems that everyone around them is happy except them, that there is the expectation to “be happy” when this does not reflect one’s internal experience, or that grief should be “dropped” for the sake of being celebratory. On top of all of this, few formal support options exist in our society to support grieving people during the holidays.
Possible associated feelings include: Grief, numbness, emotional emptiness, sadness, despair, anger, longing; You may also feel unable to concentrate, have a hard time interacting with others, or feel unable to be in any kind of social situation. Your sleep may be affected. Mood may be low, anxiety high, or both.
Alcohol, as an example, has long been a popular holiday accompaniment. For a number of people this does not cause a problem but for others, it can magnify internal demons or heighten conflict with others; situations can get out of hand and lead to unfortunate consequences.
You may be feeling more compelled to drink or use in order to face holiday situations or alternatively, be in a situation where you are affected by others’ drinking or substance use.
Being alone over the holidays can be a painful and lonely experience. We may be separated from others because of lack of social support/social Isolation, the absence of family or friends, or we may be living in a geographic location where we are separated from important people in our life.
The pandemic has brought with it public health restrictions which vary by region but may include quarantine, physical distancing, limited to no social gatherings—all of which remind us that we are not in ‘holiday business as usual’ as we would see in pre-pandemic times.
Further, family members may be divided on issues like acceptable levels of contact with one another or issues like vaccination status.
Possible associated feelings include: Frustration, loneliness, internal conflict, anger, hopelessness.
Examples include poverty, racism, colonialism or other systemic problems. For example, if there is an expectation around gift giving and one is in poverty, there may be an avoidance of seeing others or a sense of shame and inadequacy.
Possible associated feelings/effects include: Invisibility, silencing, being disregarded, stigmatized, undervalued, anger, alienation, abandonment, feelings of inadequacy and shame; Oppression, suppression.
Mental Health Issues, Developmental Disabilities or Physical Health Problems
One’s mental health status may not allow participation in holiday activities or make these painfully difficult. A panic attack may make social situations unbearable and cause folks to leave a holiday situation suddenly. Depressed and/or autistic folks may be masking in social situations, consequently triggering an untenable state of exhaustion. Chronic pain may make sitting, standing or socializing impossible. Hearing loss can make social situations disorienting and restrict social participation severely. These are only a few examples.
Possible associated feelings include: overwhelm, anxiety, cognitive slowing, disorientation, panic, frustration, exhaustion, depression.
When a reference is made to “the holidays,” this may not hold any special significance, particularly if “it’s not my holiday.” There may be a religious/atheistic conflict, a values clash, or a lack of any kind of familiarity or tradition.
Possible associated feelings include: outsiderness, unrelateableness, puzzled, neutral, repulsed.
For those recovering from perfectionism, the holidays may trigger old tendencies, particularly when holiday expectations are at play. As a result, you may find yourself spiralling as you try to meet a certain standard.
Possible associated feelings include: Striving, self-criticism/self-hatred, inadequacy, insecurity, trapped, competitiveness.
Having to Work
For people in some sectors there may be limited or no rest over the holidays as their work does not allow for a break. Health care workers, grocery store clerks, people in the restaurant industry, retail clerks and first responders are just a few examples.
Possible associated feelings include: exclusion, feeling burned out, overtaxed, frustrated, overtired.
A Silver Lining?
If you haven’t experienced any of the above, I am truly happy for you! The above may seem hard to understand and impossible to relate to.
But, despite the starkness of the above points, there may be advantages to this time of year:
An opportunity to honour yourself and your feelings. A chance to be real and truthful about your experience and to share that with someone who cares. This validation can be very healing and may also have the effect of helping others’ open up about their experiences, particularly if they feel isolated in them.
Taking Advantage of Slow Downs. One of my favourite times to go for a walk is on Christmas Day, where the outside feels quiet and still, because there fewer people around. Many services are often slowed down or stopped at this time of year so it may also be an opportunity to get off of the hamster wheel and do less.
A Chance to be Selective. Are there things you still like but you don’t want to accept everything related to the holidays? For example, perhaps it’s an opportunity to adopt a poinsettia (if that’s your thing), get a fabulous deal on lights if their twinkle cheers you up, bake obsessively without judgement from others, or capitalize on visiting someone dear to you who lives further afoot and is off during the holidays.
Giving to Others. There are often more volunteer opportunities to choose from over the holiday season and it can be a great time to jumpstart a commitment to volunteering, which you may want to carry throughout the year. Plus, for many of us, giving just plain feels good!
Can Re-Create Memories. Sometimes this is about continuing with good holiday memories from the past. But when memories are poor, we may want to re-author a memory from the past by giving it—when possible—a better outcome today.
Catalyst for Seeking Change. And sometime all of the above is still just too dang painful and it can be the push we need to spark change and take action such as start counselling, talk to a spiritual teacher, enter a treatment program, join a support group, or anything else that is meaningful for you.
Whatever you choose to do over the holidays, please be well and take care.
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