When the Holidays Aren't Happy
We often hear about the holidays being stressful because of stretched budgets, exploding social calendars, and crowded stores. But they can also be painful because of grief, isolation, trauma, and family conflict. Whether it’s the first or twentieth holiday without a loved one, not having anyone with whom to celebrate, or seeing an abusive family member at dinner, this time of year can bring up such feelings as anger, sadness, guilt, and anxiety. Unfortunately, it can feel like it’s taboo to talk about the challenges of the holiday season, which can end up silencing these emotions.
So let’s talk about surviving the holidays.
Acknowledge the difficult feelings
Holidays are HARD. The reason for this varies, so I encourage you to notice what comes up for you this holiday season. Be gentle with yourself and acknowledge your emotions and experiences as valid - just as they are. This also means checking in with yourself to identify your needs and how you can meet them.
Families can have complex dynamics that include addiction, unhealthy communication or arguments, emotional abuse, or a history of violence. If your family fits in this category, try your best to recognize and validate the emotions that arise and remember that they are coming up for a reason. One of those emotions might be dread, which can subsequently lead to feelings of guilt. It can be exhausting to put up a front and act like things are “normal” and happy when it doesn't feel that way on the inside. So throw away the notion that you’re supposed to be excited, and know that you’re allowed to dread seeing your family.
For those who don’t have anyone with whom to spend the holidays, the loneliness and pain can be particularly stifling. Allow your emotions to go against the general sentiment that the holidays need to be cheerful and know that others are having a hard time too.
If you have lost a loved one, you might also be struggling with the fact that you do feel happy and believe this minimizes their memory. You might even forget to miss them for a moment, and that’s okay too. Feelings of guilt might bubble up, but you have the right to feel joy while also deeply missing someone. Try to ride that rollercoaster of emotions. It might seem like they conflict with one another, but they are all valid feelings that deserve to be given time and space.
Talk to people
I guarantee you that you are not the only person who has mixed feelings about this time of year. As mentioned, the holidays have a way of both intensifying and silencing feelings at the same time. It can therefore ease the isolation if you talk to others who are struggling. Reach out to people who may also be alone for the holidays, have complex family dynamics, or have lost someone.
Although painful, it can bring relief to talk about a lost loved one or to share difficult family experiences. You might not want to share your feelings for fear of upsetting others, but you most likely aren’t the only one wishing they could talk to someone.
Be realistic with expectations
It would be really great if Uncle Gary just stopped being racist this year and Grandma Pilar didn’t make passive-aggressive comments about your life choices. However, let’s just assume they stayed the same since the last time you saw them. This allows you to go into a situation knowing what to expect and have coping strategies in hand (see below.)
In terms of loss, whether it’s a death or the end of a relationship, prepare yourself for the fact that this year will look different. That might mean changing expectations of yourself, as well. What might have felt okay in the past, might not this year. Perhaps contributing to a family potluck is too big of a task or certain traditions bring too much pain.
Honour where you are at, meet those needs, and know that you can change your mind. Part of being gentle with oneself is being honest about what you can handle. If you’re feeling overwhelmed because you agreed to bring a dessert, take off the apron and google your nearest bakery.
Realistic expectations are also important in determining whom you can rely on for support. If your cousin has never been comfortable with intimate conversations, then he's not the one to go to when you need to talk about your recent divorce and how you are struggling to be there for your children. If your mother thinks you should be over your abusive childhood, she's not the one who will understand that you don’t want to sit next to your father.
Part of self-care is also ensuring your own emotional well-being and safety. That means you get to skip dinner if a perpetrator will be present or if a big family gathering is too much for your heart to hold. It doesn’t matter that it felt manageable in past years - you are allowed to modify boundaries or even set new ones. Yes, others might be disappointed and they’re allowed to feel that way. However, you are not responsible for making them feel better at your own expense. You can validate their feelings while also honouring your own needs.
So, if needed, say no to invitations, leave parties early, and recruit support people where you can. Again, some traditions just won’t happen this year and that’s okay. What is important is engaging in restorative activities, such as taking time to yourself or getting enough sleep.
The other thing about traditions is that you get to create new ones. Perhaps you choose to volunteer at a soup kitchen instead of staying home alone, maybe you light a candle and have a moment of silence to honour a loved one, or you decide that the typical family feast is best supplied by Pizza Pizza instead.
Whether it’s a breathing technique or an exit plan, prepare to use coping strategies during family events. Maybe you won’t need them, because Uncle Gary saw the light or a harmful family member didn’t show up to dinner. But if things do become overwhelming or start to feel unsafe, it can be beneficial to have a safety plan going into family occasions. Since our brain can short-circuit when we are under stress, it can be difficult to recall strategies that we know to be helpful. Therefore, it can be useful to keep a list of effective techniques on your phone or on an index card that you keep in your wallet.
Not sure what might help? Here’s a whole list of strategies to explore. I suggest testing them out now on smaller-scale stressors, so that you already know which ones work and which ones don’t. It’s best to experiment with strategies before we need them, so we’re completely prepared for when we do.
Ultimately, be gentle with yourself. Be kind and loving, and know that there isn’t a timeline on how long it takes to process family trauma, the loss of a relationship, the fear of another year gone by, the loneliness of a holiday spent alone, or the death of a loved one. Allow yourself to hurt, laugh, rage, cry, and welcome those feelings as expected visitors with the knowledge that they will come and go as time passes. Turn off the noise that says it’s a joyous season, and just allow it to be whatever you need it to be. It will hurt, but the pain will pass. And when it comes back, remind yourself that it will pass again. Try not to approach it with hurry or impatience, but allow it to leave when it is ready to move on and let go.