For most American adults, the period from Thanksgiving though New Year’s is a difficult time. We seem to be plunged into a virtual reality somewhere between a carnival and a nightmare. The streets and the malls are filled with lights, holiday melodies, and glittery ornaments. We are deluged by special pageants and programs, an excess of food and drink. The holiday frenzy, like the gifts we exchange, is beautifully packaged—with the appearance of merriment and good cheer for all to partake.
Yet, for almost everyone, the holidays create mixed, contradictory and ambivalent reactions. Many of us experience some degree of distress—from low-level tension or irritability to sadness and depression. The most central issue in “holiday blues” is our internal expectations of what should be, but is not. This usually revolves around family and relationships. From the time we are young children, the Norman Rockwell scenario of loved ones together at holiday time is imprinted upon our brains. We measure our personal situations against what we are told or imagine should be the ideal and may come up wanting.
If we have no family, if we have a dysfunctional family, or if we have lost family members, the lack is striking and often painful. Paradoxically, being with family can also result in intense crisis, even feelings of alienation, as the holidays can bring out the worst in family patterns and underscore the poignant absence of those no longer in our lives. Even people who are not challenged by isolation, loss, or significant family difficulties often find that the holidays fall short of expectations. The schedule was just too hectic, things did not go right in some way, the adrenalin rush was followed by too painful an emotional letdown, and just too much money was spent, often with absolutely no one seeming to benefit in any meaningful way.
The holidays are a special time for everyone with unique external pressures and strong emotional reactions, often on the most “gut,” even unconscious levels. There is a deeply psychological and spiritual meaning of the holiday season in our lives, which is often overlooked. In fact, we can cope better by understanding the importance of the holidays for both psychological and spiritual growth.
People need holidays. Almost all societies have holidays of one sort or another. These are often extended, grand celebrations involving nonsensical rituals to usher in or mark occasions and turning points. In modern America, the holiday season is really our yearly, extended New Year festival, bridging one chronological year to the next.
Rituals and celebrations serve an important psychological purpose. Our holidays are not just archaic leftovers from a less civilized era or simply a time for vacation or gluttony or getting together with those we love. The holidays take us from one period of our lives to the next psychologically, and they confront us with spiritual and philosophical truths and ideals. What they should do is help us, as individuals, evaluate where we are in our lives, what is ultimately meaningful, and where we want to go. New Year’s celebrations, such as our holiday time, should end with a sense of affirmation and renewal—although the psychological journey involved can be bittersweet and sometimes painful.
The holidays are a time of personal journey and affirmation of meaning. We all go on this inward journey, but we do a lot of the deep psychological processing unconsciously. As the normal world winds down and the holiday rituals rev up—for the individual there is an emotional, sometimes spiritual pull to the deepest levels of memory and feeling. It is very hard to escape the holidays, and it is not only the decorations and the reindeer elevator music. There is a sense of solitary quiet and spiritual retreat underneath the fanfare. We have this extended period of “down time” when the task-oriented aspects of the world seem to go on automatic pilot.
It is human nature in this kind of environment to turn inward to some degree and get emotional, attend to the “feeling” instead of the “doing” side of things. Of course, feelings can be positive or negative and are often mixed or contradictory. With negative feelings, in particular, we can also get carried away in a gloomy snowballing effect, which keeps feeding on itself. We can end up in a rather despairing place once this begins.
It is important to remember that we are drawn inward to a deep emotional place, even when we are busy and caught up in the holiday madness. The busyness of the holidays is very emotionally laden. It is about family, pleasing others, memories and loss—like when you pull out Grandma’s Christmas cookie recipe. There is always an undercurrent of “in the gut” emotionality, which comes from and connects us to a place deep within, no matter how many gifts we have to wrap, dishes to cook, parties to go to, or relatives to meet at the airport.
The reflection and internal processing that goes on during the holidays is serious and bittersweet, no matter what our circumstances. One of the background themes is that life, above all, is changing and ephemeral. During our modern American holidays, we essentially are killing off and mourning the old year. Still, we are not just abstractly putting to rest “that year that was.” We are putting to rest OUR year that was—and we are doing this in the context of another year of our lives gone by.
So, it makes sense that on some, often subtle level, all of us are going to experience a little bit of existential anxiety, evaluate what we did or did not do over the past year, and be confronted with areas where we come up lacking, those aspects of our lives where there is a discrepancy between where we want to be and where we are. It is also not just about career goals and lifestyle resolutions—the holidays pull us to that emotional and philosophical space deep within. Where do we find meaning? What is really important? Where do we find and express love? Where are we in terms of connections to others or to something larger than ourselves? These are generally the more painful, sometimes frightening areas to deal with and more difficult to be honest about or to control.
Now, there are some people who find genuine joy during the holidays. This does not mean that they do not feel the bittersweet feelings or that they do not travel the internal re-assessment and re-affirmation journey that we all go through. In fact, most people probably feel a mixture of positive and negative emotions at this time. The difference is that some people are able to fairly readily access and depend on what is genuinely meaningful in their lives, and thus the joyful feelings predominate. Perhaps, they are extremely lucky in their family situations. Not that the family is simply intact or loving, but they are able to communicate in an emotionally meaningful way and do not get bogged down in comparisons with others or trying to meet unrealistic expectations.
Those who are joyful often have a deeply religious or spiritual perspective that provides a framework of meaning that anchors and carries them during this time. The deeply spiritual person sees himself as connected to something larger, benevolent, even glorious. The personal journey of rebirth is perceived as a celebration of thankfulness and joyful sharing as “light” and new life and fresh beginnings, which are the themes that we celebrate in our rituals during this time, are the ultimate gifts of God.
Of course, a truly spiritual perspective is achieved only through an enduring commitment to certain beliefs and values—many of which are ignored and even scorned by the mainstream culture. It makes sense that those who have strong spiritual convictions would seem to benefit at this time, when all of us are pulled to that deep place within and confronted, at least subtly, with basic philosophical questions about our lives.
This is the spiritual time of the year for everyone—whatever that means or does not mean to us. To the degree that we have spiritual feelings—not religious, but that uniquely personal spiritual understanding—this can really help in coping with and making the most out of this time of year. Unfortunately, the spiritual aspects of the holidays have been increasingly de-emphasized in recent decades.
There are certain things we can do to try to hold onto a positive and more spiritual perspective. There are many definitions of spirituality these days, but a kind of generic understanding of spirituality is that it is how an individual finds a unique, nurturing, deeply emotional connection with something greater than one’s self. Where we find meaning in our lives will vary from person to person. However, almost always, we find meaning in a genuine connection with something outside ourselves. Typical avenues of meaning can be found through genuine connection with other people, a sense of tradition, art, and nature, as well as more formal spiritual practice. Spending fun time with children can be particularly rewarding during the holidays and forces us to reach beyond ourselves. Altruistic work can involve real connection with those who are needier, and is powerful and uplifting.
Finally, the more we can reframe and redirect our emotions in terms of a sense of spiritual connection—again, whatever that means for us—the more likely we will feel affirmed and validated, instead of distressed and distraught during the holidays.
Dr. Judy Marshall received her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In thirty years of clinical practice in New York and Los Angeles, she has worked with many different groups, from children to the frail elderly, with particular interests including self-esteem, depression, sensitivity, and creativity.
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