Celebrating the Holidays – From the Inside Out

Here we are again. Gearing up for the most hyped time of the year. Seems like I’m still recovering from last year.    

The holiday season is perhaps one of the most busy and emotionally-charged times of the year. And, for many of us, it’s the most difficult time of the year. Holidays are meant to be a time of joy, warmth, excitement and anticipation, but many of us live through them with unresolved conflicts, loneliness, and a greater awareness of our need to be loved and connected.  Furthermore, the holidays often exacerbate already existing feelings of sadness and quiet desperation. Some of the problems and emotions we effectively keep in check during the year spring to the surface during this loaded season.  We are caught off-guard.  And such stress gets added to our already overwhelming “to-do” list.

In our society, we project a “holiday fantasy” –  this is the time of year when everyone should be happy, busy, energetic and sharing wonderful feelings. We eagerly anticipate family togetherness and relish the prospect of friends touting bonhomie and good cheer. Billboards and TV screens bombard us with messages of joy and good cheer; store windows, adorned with accouterments of glitter and goodwill, reach out persuasively, urging us to BUY, BUY, BUY!; and mailboxes sag under the strain of greeting cards and festive gatherings.  Our religious and cultural traditions constantly remind us this is the season for love, togetherness, and celebration. From all around, we are assailed with the message: BE HAPPY!

But does this lift us to an authentically joyful place? Probably not. On the contrary, the surfeit of simulated joy often serves as a painful reminder that things are not as we would like them to be in our lives. We feel disappointment and despair rather than hope, renewal and reconnection. We experience a nagging feeling that things are not right, that this is all a cover-up when what we really feel is disconnection and conflict deep inside.

The holidays can strain us in many ways: (1) Financially. We may find ourselves spending more than we should and still feel we haven’t done enough.  Did we forget someone?  We incur debts that take months, if not all year, to pay off; and when they are settled, the cycle only repeats itself.  (2) Physically. The festive frenzy lays siege to our stress levels as we are swamped by overactive schedules, crowds of holiday shoppers, harrowing traffic conditions and impossible deadlines. We attend more than our normal quota of social events. We drink too much, eat too much and don’t take the time to exercise. Fatigue and exhaustion from these demands quickly overwhelm us. (3) Relationally. Many families are rocked with unresolved tensions that become more apparent during the holidays. Misunderstandings and conflict can ignite quickly under holiday pressure. The “Hallmark” celebration inevitably and cruelly falls short of expectations, and we are often left feeling out of control, helpless and down. Holidays are especially difficult for those who are detached from their families or have experienced a recent loss of some kind. We are reminded of loved ones no longer present, and our grief and loneliness are exacerbated when we see others apparently having such a grand time.    (4) Emotionally. Ambitious and unrealistic expectations – both from ourselves and others – inflict further emotional strain and often end in disappointment. We fantasize that this year it will be better. We often set ourselves up for letdown when these unrealistic expectations cannot be met. “Maybe this year I will be loved and appreciated as I’ve always wanted to be.”  “Maybe this year, there will be just the right gifts, the perfect meal, warmth and love from a caring family, and a card from that long-lost friend.”  We become like little kids again, allowing ourselves to hope, dream, wonder, trust and feel. This internal regression is only heightened as the holidays act as a memory container for the nostalgia bug to surface. We embark on our brief historical journey, facing our childhoods once again.  Old photos are pulled out for viewing.  Our senses are awakened as we smell the scents of the house, hear the music of the morning, and taste Grandma’s pie recipe. We are flooded by feelings of both treasured memories and as well as broken dreams we thought were long buried.  Thus, we are rendered vulnerable and sad.

The sum total of this stress can often lead to dis-stress, often called “the Holiday Blues.” We may experience a lack of appetite or overeating, insomnia or hypersomnia, fatigue, low self-esteem, poor concentration, difficulty in making decisions, feelings of hopelessness, irritability, angry outbursts, excessive brooding, difficulty finding pleasure in life, self-defeating guilt and social isolation.

Here are a few suggestions for combating the Holiday Blues:

1. Create a holiday that makes sense to you. Refuse to get caught up in the commercial trappings of the holiday season. What activities and traditions offer the most meaning and enjoyment to you and your family? Freely question the routines you have tended to follow just because they “have always been done that way.” Take the risk of exploring creative options, and perhaps more simple ones. And stop the guilt.  No one says you have to do anything.

2. Analyze your expectations of self and others. Which ones are realistic and how can you go about getting these wants and needs attended to? Identify the fantasies that are setting you up for disappointment and anger. Let go of the things you cannot control.

3. Take time to be present, instead of frantically checking off your to-do list. Reflect, slow down, feel and center yourself. Avoid immersing yourself in frenzied activity to numb your feelings. Be grateful for what you have. Ask for support if need be. Offer yourself comfort and gentleness. And give yourself the freedom to play, rediscovering the passion, excitement, laughter and wonder of childhood.

4. Seek and celebrate genuine connection.  Avoid the tendency toward “psychotic chatter,” where excessive talk serves to avoid true connection.  Rather, make genuine contact with others. Express yourself to folks that have the capacity to engage with you in reciprocal authentic manner. 

5. Give into the chaos. Control isn’t all its cracked up to be. Holiday times are meant to be a little nutty and insane.  You can recover and once again find structure and routine on those cold days ahead in the New Year.

On a deeper level, the Holiday Blues may be a warning sign that things are not right in our lives and that it’s time for an honest self-appraisal. In this way, the Blues could also be a gift, spurring us to take control over the important personal issues which deserve our attention.  Such an opportunity drives us into the deeper, more internalized self that we ignore and repress so efficiently during the rest of the year. In other words, the holidays have a way of penetrating our daily functioning defenses. As human beings, we all have hurts and disappointments.   The holidays are a time to remember and reconnect – if not to images of happiness, than at least to dreams we once held dear. We need this yearly act of nurturance to spurn our aliveness emotionally.  For if disappointment becomes too great, the spirit dies from accumulated anger and resentment and we become a shell of who we might have been, of whom we could be.  Bitterness hardens the heart and diminishes our ability to be emotionally alive to the present.  

How have we reacted to life’s hurts and disappointments? Have we responded with grief and renewal or have we become locked into past experiences so the present consists largely of going through the motions? Do we feel the spirit of the season in our hearts or are we only being lured and seduced by countless commercial messages? What buried dreams are long forgotten? What new opportunities do we have to find meaning; to give rather than to just receive; to feel full rather than just ravenous and empty?

The yearly message of the Season is that hope transcends life’s hurts.  There may not always be happy endings but there is always the capacity for profound renewal of the human spirit. For it is in the willingness to sit with the pain of our emptiness and to remain open that we discover the space for creativity and connection. And it is in returning again and again to both this emptiness and the ensuing connection that the gift of transformation awaits us.  

 My hope for each of us is that somewhere between the fa-la-las and the ho-ho-hos we take the time to sift through all the glitter and hype to search for what truly gives us meaning. May we remain open to our deepest self and to the love that is within and around us, so that we can best reflect the meaning of the season – that of goodness, lovingkindness, truth and beauty.