“It’s Christmas, I should be happy”.
In reality the holiday season is a nerve-wracking, upsetting, and difficult time of year for many people; here’s a few tips to help survive when Christmas time is hard.
With only a few days left until Christmas, some people are feeling excited, energized and happy; but many are feeling anxious, stressed, and even depressed.
Now I know, there are some people who will totally disagree with that statement, or question “how can people be depressed during the most wonderful time of the year?”. For those people – this blog post is not for you.. but it may be very helpful for those around you if you read it anyways.
Why is Christmas time so hard?
It’s one of the only holidays that, no matter which way you turn, you’re faced with the same music, same decorations, same characters, same everything that you had when you were a kid growing up, same everything when you were in that horrible relationship, same everything when you were going through that really difficult year. Hello perfect trigger to remind you of all that miserable upsetting stuff from your past that you try really hard not to think about.
On the other hand, this is also the season to reflect on the past year. For most people, when we look back on the past 12 months, what is noticed is not the accomplishments, successes and celebrations, it’s the perceived shortcomings and failures, the stresses and traumas – all the negative stuff from an entire year compressed and concentrated. Today at my practice nearly every single one of the client’s that I saw, made some reference to being ‘thankful that 2015 is over, and please bring on 2016 because it can’t possibly be as bad that this year was’.
Memories of the past, and focusing on a year’s worth of failures and negatives isn’t the most difficult part of the holiday season.. it’s the expectations of happiness and the never-ending obligations.
Most people that I talk to tell me “I should be happy” this time of year, and (because they are not) there “must be something wrong with me”. Many respond to this by becoming ‘anti-Christmas’ (hence the bah-hum-bug) or by trying to fake it with the help of a little (or a lot) of rum & egg-nog. There are expectations of how we’re supposed to feel, and how things are supposed to be; and usually those expectations are impossible to achieve.
There’s a lot more ‘shoulds’ this time of year in addition to the ‘should be happy’… I ‘should’ spend time with my family, I ‘should’ enjoy every minute of it, I ‘should’ serve the perfect dinner, I ‘should’ buy the perfect gifts, I ‘should’ do this, I ‘shouldn’t’ do that…. ugh. The sense of obligation this time of year is off the charts. There is an endless, unrealistic list of ‘shoulds’; which is immediately followed by the unrelenting self-criticism because we didn’t perfectly complete this idealistic, unreasonable list.
Tips to get through it:
1> Stop ‘shoulding’ all over yourself.
Notice how many times you say to yourself ‘I should’ or ‘I shouldn’t’. When you hear it – stop. Now ask yourself “do I really?” and “do I want to?”. Should you make sure the napkins on the perfectly set table match the ribbons on the gift on the tree? Do you really? No. Do you want to… probably not. You may feel like you “have to”.. which takes us to #2
A big source of stress and tension comes from a sense of obligation. Each ‘obligation’ that we have drains energy. Now some obligations are absolutely necessary – do you have an obligation to feed the kids? YES. Do you have an obligation to single handedly cook the perfect Christmas dinner for 30 people? NO. The problem with obligations is that they all feel like they are absolutely, do-or-die necessary. News flash.. they’re not! Take a moment to check in with all the obligations you believe you have and notice which ones fit into the “must do” category and which go into the “would be nice” category. Take the ones in the ‘must do’ category and prioritize them; take the ones in the ‘would be nice’ category and set them aside. If you have time (and only if you have time), you can consider doing some of those – but only one at a time. When you free yourself of the pressure and demand to do those “would be nice” obligations, you save yourself a ton of time and energy.
P.S. Fear of disappointing someone does not automatically put an ‘obligation’ into the ‘must do’ category. Even if it feels like it does!
3> Carve out a little ‘you time’.
Once you’ve done a bit of an inventory and cleaned-house with the obligations, take a little bit of your saved energy and spend it on yourself. Yes, this is the season of caring for others – but remember you can’t care for others if you don’t take care of yourself. Spend a little bit of time doing something you want to do – just because you like it. If that’s watching a movie, doing some art, going for a massage, taking a walk… whatever it is, as long as it’s enjoyable, relaxing, and healthy for you… (and does not involve going anywhere near a mall!)
4> Easy on the egg-nog.
There is a reason why this is the time of over-indulgence. Christmas time is hard and alcohol does a great job in temporarily distracting us from stress, tension, and memories, so we can avoid uncomfortable emotions. But that relief is very temporary, and what we seem to forget is that the discomfort rebounds on us and comes back even stronger. Plus the nature of alcohol can also result in us having more stress and discomfort to deal with the next day (see our blog about recovering from the office Christmas party disaster). So ease up on the booze – you’ll feel better in the morning, and have more energy to get through the rest of this week.
5> Check your expectations.
If you expect the holiday season to be happy, carefree, and perfect … you’re probably going to be disappointed. If you expect the visit with all of the family, who are about to invade your home, to go off without a single conflict or awkward moment.. you’re probably going to be disappointed. Get realistic about the holidays, about your schedule, about your limits and capabilities, and about the other people in your life – their personalities and behaviours. When you lower your expectations you automatically lower the disappointment potential.
6> Remember stuff on purpose.
Notice that your mind is taking ‘negative inventory’, or bringing up painful memories from the past – and take a step back. Remember these are ‘just memories’ and ‘just thoughts’.. try not to jump onto that negative spiral thought train (and I know that’s a lot easier said that done). Instead, take a moment to recall some of the positives on purpose. It may have been a difficult year, but I’m willing to bet there was at least something positive that happened. It may not come to mind that easy, but it’s there. Once you think of something positive, stay with that thought for a while (your mind is going to try and pull you off track and onto something negative.. just notice that are re-focus on the positive); and then keep going, you’ve thought of one thing even when you thought you couldn’t… I bet you can think of another.
7> Okay with not okay.
Accept the fact that you are not feeling okay – and that is okay. I know it doesn’t feel good, and yes, it would be wonderful if everyone was as happy and bubbly as a hallmark card. But it’s not realistic, it’s not real life… it’s a hallmark card. Christmas time is hard for you, and for many people. Remind yourself that you’re not alone with how you’re feeling; and that you’ve survived every single holiday season in your life.. you will survive this one.
Summit Counselling Group is made up of eight, professional, and compassionate Registered Clinical Counsellors; working with individuals, couples, adults, children, adolescents, and families at our executive West Broadway office in beautiful Vancouver, B.C.