It's the most wonderful time of the year...
except for when it's not.
The holidays are a particularly vulnerable time for those who are already struggling to feel well.
Forced Connection with Estranged Family Members.
Reminders of Loved Ones who have Died.
Comparison to Others.
Today, we're taking a moment to set some ground rules as we enter the 2021 holiday season.
1. Be willing to feel all those mixed up emotions.
In therapist world, we often speak of "dialectics." This is just a fancy way of saying that it is possible for us to experience two seemingly conflicting emotions at the same time and have both be true.
The holidays can be full of joy and excitement...
...they can leave you feeling exhausted and empty.
You can have deep love and gratitude for your family and friends...
...interacting with them can feel irritating, overwhelming, or isolating.
You can enjoy the new memories you are making...
...deeply long for things to be how they once were.
Rather than shaming yourself for experiencing these negative emotions, purposefully show yourself some kindness and be willing to make space for the truth of both. There is good amongst the bad and bad amongst the good for us all. Be willing to normalize this fact.
2. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do.
Pay careful attention to that little voice in your head telling you that you "HAVE to" or "really should do" something this holiday season. You know, the one that says, "I have to stay up until 11 p.m. to make two dozen cookies for the kids holiday bake sale because if I don't I'll let down the PTA, bring shame upon my family, and establish once and for all that I'm a terrible, hot mess of a mom."
This is 2021.
We now understand the way these kinds of thoughts impact our overall health.
(Spoiler Alert: It's not good.)
If participating in an activity is going to compromise the emotional well-being of you or your family, it's time to say no.
You are not required to spend money on physical gifts that will burden you with financial stress in order to show others that you love them. Dropping $200 at the local Bath and Body Works on scented lotions and candles is not a pre-requisite for belonging to your family.
These thoughts are insidious and convince us we have no other choice. Can't realistically make the 16 hour road trip to Thanksgiving dinner with your in-laws after a 50 hour work week with your three small children who have all been sick? Or at least can't pull it off without having an emotional breakdown and yelling at your spouse the entire way? It's time to waive the white flag.
Certain that getting together with a particular family member is going to send you into a total stress spiral? Repeat after me: "I'm sorry to let you know that I won't be able to make it this year." Full Stop. No other justification required.
It's okay to disappoint those you love in order to care for yourself.
Watch how quickly your initial feelings of guilt turn into relief and empowerment. Those who deserve to hold space in your life may not like it when you set a boundary - but anyone worth a seat at next years holiday table should be willing to respect your needs.
3. Acknowledge the absence of those you have lost by honoring them with tradition.
If you're acquainted with my own story, you know that I lost my dad suddenly and unexpectedly just one month after my wedding day in 2016. Now five years later, I'm confident we never "move on" from our grief. We just move forward with it. Credit to my girl, Nora McInerny, for that gem of truth.
The holidays are saturated with memories of our loved ones. If you've managed to primarily cope with your grief by avoiding all reminders of their absence, the holidays may feel akin to pouring salt on an open wound. It is nearly impossible to escape grief when the empty chair at the table is staring back at you. Longing for what once was while those around you seem so full of joy only pronounces the emptiness and isolation we feel. This is true during the holidays more than any other time of year.
Rather than avoiding these memories, consider honoring (and dare I say, celebrating) them. Bake the coffee cake they made each year. Dig out the ceramic Christmas tree they loved so much. Play the 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' song on repeat no matter how much it annoys you because it totally and completely encapsulates their spirit.
Laugh. Cry. Breathe it all in. Remember. Celebrate. Honor. Love.
For those of you grieving this holiday season, give yourself permission to feel the things you're so scared might consume you. Honoring the space they once held is a purposeful step towards carrying them forward without leaving their memory behind.
4. Reach out to someone who can help.
Maybe you already have an amazing support system. The kind of people that will pick up the phone at 2 a.m. to let you vent about your Aunt Regina for the third time this week after she casually mentioned that you've totally failed to create a stable life for yourself and you really should reach out to your Cousin Andrew because he has a suitable partner AND a college education... (Isn't family fun?!)
If you already have these kind of people in your life, amazing! You've hit the literal friendship jackpot. Hold these people close and utilize their support this holiday season to help you decompress from all the extra stress.
But just in case you happen to be more like the rest of us, I'd guess you probably have three or less friends you would consider "close" and even fewer that might reasonably show up for you in a crisis with the perfect words that make you feel seen and understood.
Consider connecting with others with shared experiences who understand what you're going through. The advent of the internet has afforded us with the ability to no longer solely rely on those in our direct social networks to provide support. Not sure where to start? Here are a few of my favorites. Check out these communities if you're coping with grief, have been disowned by your family due to your sexuality, are lonely navigating parenthood, are struggling with others understanding your mental health, are experiencing racial trauma, need support pursuing sobriety, or are looking to connect with others through spiritual community.
Wondering if you might need even more (i.e., professional) support? You can complete a few free and well-validated, self-report screening tools for depression, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and many others by clicking on the links included in this post from the Anxiety Depression and Anxiety Association (ADAA). If you notice your scores fall in the "elevated" range, please reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional who can help guide you towards next steps to get you back to feeling like yourself. Need even more immediate support? The Crisis Text Line is available 24/7.
The holidays can be hard.
Give yourself the permission to participate in a way that makes you feel healthy and whole.
Wishing you an abundance of comfort and love wherever you find yourself this year.
I am cheering you on!
With great joy and gratitude,