I was recently in Alabama to help my sister recover following a minor but invasive operation and there it was: A 24-hour loop of easy, perfect couch-potato viewing pleasure. Sugary movies with 100 percent predictable plots and not-so-complex characters. Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas” was already in full swing. The date? Only November 2.
As the holiday season seems to be getting longer and longer each year, these syrupy movies have an ever-expanding opportunity to provide a synopsis for how we “should” feel during the winter months: hopeful, happy, connected, gracious, loved, etc. You get the picture.
So what happens when what we “should” be feeling isn’t aligned with what we’re actually experiencing? We start serving ourselves a signature cocktail with equal parts shame, guilt, stress, anxiety, embarrassment, and peppermint to garnish (it is festive, after all).
While this list is by no means comprehensive, it does contain a few common situations that may get in the way of that “perfect” holiday season feeling:
Celebrating holidays without essential loved ones. Whether they live across the country, have been deployed, or have passed away, “celebrating” feels just wrong without them. Grief, in particular, has a knack for doubling down during the holidays. Every upbeat Christmas commercial can feel like a knife in your ribs when you’re missing someone deeply.
Travel plans or accommodating visitors. In either instance, a change to your home base can leave you feeling awkward and out of place. We all know how uncomfortable it is to be away from your bed (or your bathroom).
Relationship strain or crisis. There are few times during the year that feel worse to be at ends with your partner. Shouldn’t you be the most “in love” during the holidays? Why are you fighting? Why isn’t your relationship growing as you move into the new year? Often operating in conjunction with item number 2, this combination can leave us feeling like we don’t even have space to have a disagreement with our partner without the looming ears of in-laws.
Economic strain or crisis. This can range from stress around gift-buying all the way to homelessness. As a teacher, holiday time off was a humbling reminder to not outwardly celebrate the extended break when, for some students, school was the only constant in their lives. For some, the break meant that for two weeks, a student would have to find a place that would be warm, safe, and provide food. That’s a whole lot of worry and stress compared to your peers who are jumping out of their skin to begin the break.
Short, cold days. I live in Chicago and let me tell you: seasonal depression is the REALEST. With about six hours of sunlight a day and below-freezing temperatures, it makes sense to hibernate. But when we do, we feel guilty about exercising less, sleeping more, and feeling unmotivated to break the cycle.
If you find yourself resonating with one, or even multiple items from the list above, you are not alone. Holiday times are always the busiest at coaching and therapy practices because they’re an emotional labor for just about everyone. They challenge us individually, as a couple, as a family unit. While it may be impossible to extricate ourselves completely from holiday festivities, there are steps we can take to feel slightly more rooted.
Know that your feelings, whatever they are, are normal, real, and just as important as the next person’s. And, you don’t owe it to family or friends to project perfection when you really aren’t feeling it.
Carving out space for yourself is not only acceptable, it’s necessary. Because of how many feelings we associate with the holidays, you need the time to dissect what those feelings are and where they’re coming from. Enlist the help of a coach or therapist so that you don’t misplace anger towards Aunt Karen and accidentally stab her with a carving knife. Seriously, crazier things have happened…
Engage when it matters. Disengage when it matters. Understand when your motivation to not attend a social event is to honor yourself, or when you may be leaning into some depressive-avoidance behaviors. Just as complete isolation probably isn’t the healthiest option, neither is burning the candle from both ends. Saying yes is equally as important as saying no.
Help others, and let others help you. When we only give, give, give, we also start to build resentment towards the ones we care about the most. Remember that accepting help is not a sign of weakness, but just the opposite.
So If you’re ready to be swaddled by holiday delight, I highly suggest seeking out our friends at The Hallmark Channel. If you’re like me and just not ready to lean into peppermint mocha season yet, don’t. Find a fantastic murder docu-series and go to town. Do whatever it is that feels good to you. Unless what feels good is stabbing Aunt Karen with a carving knife; don’t do that.