For many people, the holidays can be very emotional, stressful, challenging, and/or triggering, especially if their life is not going the way they would like during that time. A stereotypical example would be a single person desiring a romantic partner during Valentine’s day. When society emphasizes something we don’t have, out discomfort increases that much more.
Any number of things can cause people to experience emotional distress during holidays, particularly towards the end of the year. During this time, we tend to think about the rest of our year: wins and losses, what we have and what we are still longing for. So many thoughts and emotions are closer to the surface than usual. There is also typically a focus on family, whether celebrating with family or remembering previous holiday experiences.
When remembering positive experiences, these could bring up negative emotions, as the people who made our experiences wonderful might not be with us anymore. We could feel a loss for what once was. Or we may have lost touch or ended relationships with important people from our past and might feel a loss around positive experiences we used to have with those people.
From another perspective, if we don’t have a lot of family or our family is unhealthy for us, an emphasis on spending time with family can bring up other types of discomfort. Simply desiring or wishing we had a large and loving family to share the holidays with can bring up more longing and dissatisfaction with our own lives.
Of course, our actual quality of life doesn’t change much during the holidays. We still have the same positive and negative things in our lives, it’s just that holidays and society (media, other people, etc.) tend to draw our focus more towards the things we don’t have, making it harder to see and feel the positive things around us.
I don’t know about other people’s experiences, but it seems to me that more and more people are experiencing greater level of discomfort during the holidays than they used to. The increasing number of non traditional holiday events, such as friendsgiving potlucks, singles only valentines events, and orphan holidays parties, suggest that we have fewer of the close family or deeply meaningful relationships that we truly desire.
So what’s the best or least distressing way to get through the holidays, if they have a negative impact on your life? As with virtually everything, there isn’t one best answer for everyone, but there are some general strategies that many people find useful.
As usual, the first step is awareness. Having an awareness of the negative impact certain holidays have on you and why. This information might be obvious or you might have to delve deeper with meditation, journaling, or other tools to figure out what is truly at the heart of your discomfort.
It also helps to hold a bigger picture view that the holidays might be a more challenging time, but they will pass. Additionally, bringing your attention to the positive things that are in your life, even while you are hurting, provides some relief. Being grateful and focusing your thoughts on the positive things in your life will help prevent the negative aspects from taking up so much real estate in your mind, making them feel less uncomfortable and overwhelming.
In my experience, the strategies that involve shifting your thoughts to more positive things can make a significant difference, but the most impactful strategies involve taking action and doing something different than your norm. It also sends a great message to yourself that your future can be better and you don’t have to continually repeat the same painful experiences from your past.
The more your current experience reflects or mirrors the painful experiences of your past, the more negative you will feel. I’m a big fan of creating new traditions or having new experiences that feel good to you. They can be related to the holiday, they can be a direct opposition to the holiday, or they can have absolutely no relation to the holiday whatsoever (these are some of my personal favorites).
One idea is to make an activity you enjoy into a new holiday tradition. Or you could create a new general tradition, such as trying a new activity every year on that holiday. There are no rules and to me, that is the beauty of it. You can make holidays into whatever you want them to be, regardless of what other people think. You will certainly run into some people who think your choices are strange, but you will also find people who think they sound great and refreshing.
It really doesn’t matter what other people think, because you are choosing to take action, instead of being a passive victim to past negative holiday experiences. However, none of this means that a holiday that has been painful for years will suddenly be a joyous experience without and sadness, disappointment, or discomfort. Doing something different will however help minimize the negative feelings and almost certainly create some positive ones to balance them out, making your overall holiday experience more positive.
As for myself, I have mixed feelings about my Christmas and end of year holiday time this year. The highlight is definitely going to be giving gifts to my kids. A few years ago I created my own Christmas activity where my kids have to answer questions that lead them to their presents (which are hidden). This year I wasn’t sure if they still wanted to do it, but my daughter told me that we had to. It seems my idea to make Christmas more than just ripping open paper as fast as possible to get to the presents is turning into our official tradition, which makes the holiday more enjoyable and memorable for all of us.
It is also a bittersweet time, because people I usually spend time with are often out of town or unavailable and the activities that bring me the most joy are often cancelled during the holidays. While the things that make my life most fulfilling might not be available, I choose to look at what else might be possible instead.
This year I do have a few days during the holidays where my schedule is much more open than usual, so I’m using this as an opportunity to do some things I normally wouldn’t be able to do. While this might seem like a tiny thing, I’m actually excited to be able to take some new exercise classes that normally I could never attend with my regular schedule. Sometimes taking action and doing little things is all it takes to shift a holiday you are dreading into a more positive experience.
If nothing else, it’s a place to start and you can build on those small successes going forward. I wish you all a wonderful holiday season and hope you have some amazing new experiences and possibly even create some awesome new traditions to make all your holidays more enjoyable for the rest of your life.