The holidays are a time of obvious contradictions and marked extremes. It is a season that invokes the highest spiritual ideals, yet spawns the crassest materialism. From Thanksgiving on, there is a palpable, busy ebullience and expectation “in the air,” which engulfs all of us. On the positive side, this can result in sometimes transcendent feelings of joy and generosity. Caught up in the warm flow of pure “holiday spirit,” even momentarily, we are inspired to extend beyond ourselves and meaningfully touch our fellow human beings, whether family, friends, or random people on the street. True “holiday spirit” is collectively unifying and individually soothing, energizing the hearts of all who partake.
Yet too often “holiday spirit” seems to deteriorate into something frenetic, gluttonous, hollow, or painful. The magical bustle becomes a financially draining “rat race,” while the interpersonal, time, and energy demands of the season leave us exhausted, guilt-ridden, hassled and annoyed. Beyond the obvious external holiday stress, many of us suffer negative, alienated, and even desperate internal reactions at a time that is supposed to evoke happiness and a spirit of sharing.
The most central issue in holiday blues is our internal expectations of what should be, but is not. This is typically framed in terms of family and relationships. We have all learned to measure our holiday situations, either directly or unconsciously, against the Norman Rockwell ideal. As we have become more psychologically aware as a society over the past twenty years, we have discussed ad infinitum how unrealistic this standard is. It is well acknowledged that dysfunctional families become more so during the holidays, and that feelings of loneliness and alienation are to be expected, whether or not we are with loved ones or have loved ones in our lives.
Still, on that basic “gut” emotional level, how socially active and interpersonally connected we are during the holiday season remains the pivotal yardstick—not only as to whether we can feel good about the holidays, but often becomes generalized to whether or not we should feel good about ourselves and our lives. If someone does not have a workable family situation, is separated from loved ones or alone, does not have a close family circle, or is faced with chronic or temporary life challenges such as illness or financial hardship, the comparison between personal reality and that internalized societal standard is stark and can be agonizing.
This type of comparison thinking is extremely destructive but feels beyond our control. There is an inherent psychological pull to re-examine our lives and ourselves during this time because the American holidays are essentially an extended New Year celebration. During this time, we put to rest the year that was and prepare for new beginnings. By their very nature, the holidays are a mixed bag psychologically. They are a time of ending and loss, which is always painful, but also afford the promise of hope and a fresh start.
Holiday blues also occur due to the extreme and excessive nature of the season, itself. Ironically, just as we appeal to the “highest” of spiritual ideals at this time, there also seem to well up the most deep-seated and “in the gut” emotions, those raw and basic feelings that emanate from a place within, beyond words and rational control. Emotions can run the gamut from positive to negative, and during the holidays we may cascade up and down the spectrum as a matter of course. However, with negative feelings we can also get carried away in a gloomy snowballing effect, which keeps feeding on itself. We can end up in a very distressed or despairing place once this process begins.
The good news is that, on a deeply psychological level, the holidays create a reflective opening in our dog-eat-dog, pressure-cooker lives so that we can re-assess where we are and connect with and re-affirm what is truly important. This is growth-oriented psychologically and spiritually, although going through the process can be difficult and bittersweet. The bad news is, because of the painful triggers and raw emotionality connected with the season, we can fall into a depressive state and be consumed with struggling for what seems like emotional survival instead of processing what we need towards personal growth. However, there are certain strategies we can use to help keep us on a positive track during this intense and emotionally provocative time.
The first thing we can do to cope with negative holiday feelings is to acknowledge the bittersweet reality of this time of year. This re-assessment/re-affirmation process is going to occur and there will be painful moments. When we’re in the midst of emotion, it is very difficult to see a way out. If we can hold on to some awareness of what is happening, it pulls us outside the emotional storm, at least periodically, and enough so that we do not become overwhelmed with despair.
So, if one becomes carried away with negative feelings, try to step back and acknowledge that this is part of a process of growth. Also, try to analyze where specifically the feelings are coming from. A painful feeling may be appropriate when we are faced with loss or letting go, even on a small scale. A painful feeling may also indicate an issue or area of life that needs to be honestly addressed or changed (i.e., where we need to learn or do something different).
This does not mean that we should not feel the feeling, but by analyzing and acknowledging what is going on, we do not let ourselves get carried away into a negative emotional tailspin. The negative emotion is a passing reaction. It is not the totality of who we are. Unfortunately, emotions have a tendency to make us feel so overwhelmed by the anger, disappointment, or depression of the moment that we seem to become the anger, disappointment or depression. We see ourselves, our lives, and our worth as locked into this negative emotional state with nowhere else to go.
If we can remain aware that negative feelings during the holidays are part of a natural journey of personal re-examination that we all go through (or should go through), we can maintain a more productive handle on the feelings as they occur. We should feel and express the emotion, for however long it is appropriate to do so. Then, let it go. Remember that there is a bigger picture to our lives, and our worth is not decreed by a passing emotional reaction.
The second thing we can do is to focus on what is truly meaningful for us. It is so easy to be distracted by the petty and material at holiday time. Given all the environmental holiday stimuli, we can readily become bogged down in trivial crisis, what someone said or did not say, gave or did not give, how we have too few or too many parties to go to, or getting into the details of how drastically we fall short of the Norman Rockwell ideal.
In America, many of us remember the September 11 tragedies and how suddenly and crisply what was truly important came to the forefront while everything else faded away. It is this “final analysis” type of thinking that can serve us well, as we re-examine where we are and re-affirm what is meaningful during the holidays. Focusing on the truly meaningful is liberating and can release us from overlearned, self-sabotaging expectations and patterns of behavior.
Although what is meaningful may vary from one person to another, it almost always involves a sense of personal integrity and connecting to something greater than one’s self. Focusing on what is meaningful allows us to get outside ourselves and our personal angst. It short circuits the tendency to compare our lives against a rigid and limiting ideal. Identifying what is truly meaningful urges us into creative action and appreciating the “here and now” real moment, instead of lamenting the past or what should be, but is not. It generally compels us towards acting with purpose and formulating future goals that are not only in our best interest, but which we can really commit to because they are so intrinsically important in the overall fabric of our lives. Getting in touch with what is truly meaningful can be painful because we may be faced with the harsh truth that we are lacking this in our lives. Still, this can motivate us like nothing else to take the necessary steps and risks to make that truly meaningful change.
A third strategy for coping with negative holiday feelings is to practice thankfulness. At all times, the likelihood of personal happiness is determined in large part by whether we see the glass as half full or half empty. This is particularly true during the holidays when raw emotionality runs rampant and there is this pull to assess ourselves in terms of superficial societal standards. The more we can be thankful and enjoy what it is we do have—and the opportunity of this moment in time—the better off we will be.
However, maintaining a positive attitude is often easier said than done. While there is the sense that all we have to do is make the decision or flip some internal switch and change our attitude, it clearly is not that easy. Making the decision helps, but our attitudes are affected by an immensely powerful substrate of unconscious emotional forces, which are particularly evoked during the holiday season.
“Thankfulness” is also too often associated with preachy Sunday school lessons and the idea of smiling while forced to swallow a bitter pill. Yet thankfulness is one of the most powerful tools that we have, as human beings, in finding personal happiness and shifting negative feelings. True thankfulness is actually a state and expression of joy. When we receive “gifts” and offer “thanks,” there is the sense of a fortifying exchange of energy or love. It also has a communal element, a sense of being connected to others and part of something larger than ourselves. When we are in a state of thankfulness, negative feelings are simply incompatible.
One age-old tenet of many spiritual perspectives is to attempt to apply thankfulness, perhaps in a more serene manner, to every element of life. Of course, even for spiritual people, this is hard to attain on a regular basis. Like so much of spiritual practice, this is a discipline that becomes a habit. The result is not only a positive mindset, but an infusion of positive energy into the person’s life—an actual lifting of spirits, so to speak, which, of course, is antagonistic to depression and other negative feelings. So, whether or not one is spiritually oriented, a habit of thankfulness is both preventive, an inoculation against a negative mindset, and can also be used as a coping tool for handling depressive feelings when they occur. This can be so therapeutic at holiday time when negative triggers and feelings of aloneness, inadequacy, and futility may besiege the individual.
One way to start practicing thankfulness is to identify those three or four things that are particularly precious in your life—those things that are your unique gifts. This may be children, health, talents, relationships, accomplishments, financial security, energy, pets, imagination, and so on. In the morning or before you go to bed or both, take a minute to focus on these things and thank God or, like a child, simply bask in the joy these gifts bring. This routine can also be repeated throughout the day and particularly at times when self-doubt or depression raises its ugly head.
Another thankfulness “drill” is to stop and briefly reflect throughout the day what one has to be thankful for, both in general and at that very moment. Go through all the positive things in your life, as many as you can allow to flow through your consciousness. Things to be thankful for may range from life, itself, to a minor positive interchange with another human being. Do not be compulsive about this, but let the thankful thoughts come spontaneously. Allow yourself to give in to any associated feelings of joy or peace or excitement, however subtle. Even such seemingly insignificant exercises can cause a positive shift and help shield against the negative downward spiral that can be so destructive. Also, once thankfulness is begun, positivity tends to blossom and grow.
In addition to thankfulness, another powerful coping tool for dealing with negative feelings is sharing. Like thankfulness, “sharing” also has a Sunday school preachy connotation to the modern mind, but this entirely misses the positive experiential effects for the individual. Genuine sharing—which means, for a space of time, putting our own needs and reactions aside to help or listen to or be there for someone else—is one of the most healing things we can do.
While it sounds corny, “to give” really is “to get.” Even research is beginning to show that altruistic behavior has significant emotional and physical benefits. People who regularly volunteer will tell you it just plain feels good, and it is not just an intellectual or self-congratulatory “high” because you feel like you are a good person when you reach out. Helping others produces an “in the body” and heart arousal, an actual physical feel-good sensation. Doing altruistic work, just genuinely reaching out to another human being, or even trying to maintain a more compassionate state of mind can be very positive and sometimes exhilarating.
Sharing is particularly healing and personally beneficial during the holidays. First of all, it gets us out of ourselves. When we “share,” we leave our internal perceptions of personal distress and emptiness behind and focus on someone else, which generally fills us up, at least temporarily. Sharing also connects us to communal feelings, no matter how alone we are or may feel. Feelings of unity and connection to others, including with those we do not know, can provide immense solace and a sense of belonging, even if we are physically alone.
In accordance with the “holiday spirit” ideal, there are actually more opportunities to reach out during this time, and others may be more receptive and open as well. One can also be creative about this. Sharing does not just mean doing structured altruistic work, but can involve a telephone call to an unsuspecting neighbor or friend, spending time with a troubled child, reaching out through email, or listening to an elderly aunt who has Alzheimer’s and most people generally ignore.
Sharing with those who are truly needy can be particularly rewarding and forces us to reach beyond ourselves. Spending real “fun time” with children produces special positive feelings. Kids clearly do the holidays best. They naturally have a sense of wonder, naive idealism, and an un-self-conscious need for love. They draw us back to a place of innocence where things like hope and good will to men seem not only possible but entirely natural.
It is important to remember that sharing can also be “in spirit” or from afar. We may share by attending or watching on television holiday services and programs that project an aura of transcendence and meaning. There is the potential for soothing, transcendent human connection when we allow ourselves to participate as members of the “human family.”
In fact, the final coping strategy for coping during the holidays is fostering a sense of spiritual connection and is related to the idea that we find solace by participating in something larger than ourselves. There are many definitions of spirituality these days, but a kind of generic understanding is that spirituality is how an individual finds a unique, nurturing, deeply emotional connection with something greater than one’s self. Typical avenues of spiritual connection can be found through meaningful relating to other people, a sense of tradition, art, and nature as well as more formal spiritual practice.
Because of the re-assessment/re-affirmation process we all go through, the holidays are the “spiritual” time of the year for everyone, whatever that means or does not mean to us personally. To the degree that we have a uniquely personal spiritual understanding, this is one of the most useful coping tools that we have. This is true at all times during the year, but particularly so in navigating the emotionally rocky holidays. If we can reframe and redirect our emotions in terms of a sense of spiritual connection and meaning, whatever that is personally understood to involve, the more likely we will be able to remain on the positive and uplifted, instead of depressive track during the holiday season.
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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