"The word 'happiness' would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness." Carl Jung
The holiday season is a time of expectation. We are bombarded with media images, heartwarming movies and stories, and nostalgic memories from childhood, about the specific perfection that one day is supposed to have. The message is clear: in order to have a "good" Christmas, we are supposed to attend a barrage of parties, decorate our homes, provide a mountain of just-right presents, and--most importantly--spend quality, joyful time with our families.
Sadly, these expectations are not just high--they are nearly impossible to achieve. Introverts and people with social anxiety can become burned out on all the parties and obligations. The busy-ness can lead us to desperately crave me-time. Limited budgets and economic stress can lead us to feel hopelessly inadequate. Our relatives are human, and there are bound to be some conflicts and strained relationships. And the family time can serve as a very painful reminder of loved ones who are no longer with us.
Nobody is immune from the holiday blues, but it is important to remember that this, too, shall pass. Here are some ways to get through the holiday season when it is less-than-merry, and even some ways to find some joy in the midst of sadness and stress.
1. Get rid of "supposed to."
There is no way that you are supposed to feel, and nothing that you are supposed to do during the holidays. If you are not happy, there is nothing wrong with that. Acknowledge your sadness and stress, and resist the urge to fight against it. Let yourself cry when you need to, and let yourself miss your loved ones who are no longer there.
2. Move beyond the pity party.
While acknowledging and allowing sadness is helpful, engaging in conversations (both internal and external) that indulge and perpetuate self-pity can make you miserable. Allow the feelings, but then move forward while experiencing them. Find friends who help you focus on the possibilities this year, rather than keeping you trapped in pining for the past. Grieve for the past, but then bring your focus to now.
3. Pare down your obligations.
Society's "requirements" for a perfect holiday might be your recipe for misery. Only choose to participate in activities that enrich your life and your experience. If you are an introvert, you may choose to attend only 1-2 parties. There is nothing wrong with saying "no." Perhaps you would prefer to meet with a few friends individually, for coffee or lunch, rather than attending large gatherings. And if you can't afford to buy everyone presents, say that you would rather not exchange gifts with acquaintances and co-workers.
4. Create some new traditions.
Don't be afraid of change. If you've lost a loved one, trying to create the same experience that you had when they were alive, can seem empty and depressing. Instead, try doing something completely new. My mother-in-law used to create a storybook Christmas meal for us, and decorated in true Norman Rockwell fashion. After she passed unexpectedly, we chose to change our traditions completely. We ate pizza and appetizers, and had a very laid-back, silly celebration. This became a fitting way to honor her, and to acknowledge that the old way simply would not work without her presence.
5. Don't stress about reciprocity.
I used to keep generic gifts on hand, in case a friend gave me an unexpected present. This became expensive and stressful. Giving is not an economic exchange. It can be very fun for the giver to surprise the recipient with a present, and there is no obligation to reciprocate. Along the same lines, if you can not give someone a gift of equal value to the gift they gave you, do not stress. We all give as we are able, and if someone does not understand that, they do not understand the spirit of giving.
6. Consider changing the date.
As a teacher, there were years when my break started the day before Christmas eve. I found it very difficult to get all my shopping done during the days before break, when my job was at its craziest. So one year, we changed the date of Christmas. Santa visited our house on December 27. That gave us ample time for shopping, and we were even able to take advantage of some after-Christmas sales.
7. Make your self-care a priority.
Sleep, healthy eating, and yoga are non-negotiable priorities for me, and the holiday season is no exception. This is a time of the year when there is tremendous pressure to over-give, when most people are stressed, and when depression is common. Which means that self-care needs to be given more importance. When we let our basic needs slip, then we are less able to be present for those around us, and less able to find joy. Book time for yourself, before you say "yes" to any other obligations.
8. Give back as you are able.
While over-giving will only add to holiday stress, giving back in a small way can help put life in perspective. Consider adopting a family with a group, or spending an afternoon volunteering at the food bank. Keep a little spare change on hand, so your child can always feed the Salvation Army kettle.
9. Find traditions that suit your family.
Is your family more goofy than heart-warming? No worries. Start a tradition of watching comedies, or even playing Cards-Against-Humanity! Accept everyone as they are, and find activities that they will all enjoy, even if they are not suitable for a Hallmark card.
10. Consider a white elephant auction.
Instead of buying expensive gifts, have everyone find one item in their home that they want to get rid of. Then, have everyone draw numbers. The first person opens one gift. The subsequent participants may either open a gift or steal from someone who has already chosen. After everyone has gone, the first person may exchange their gift with any of the participants. This is a fun (and free) alternative to a gift exchange.
In the end, remember that the holidays come only once a year, and last for only a short time. Once New Year's is over, we will enter into a long period of consistency, when it becomes easier to establish routines and make positive changes. Find the joy you can, and let go of expectations!
For help in managing holiday stress and making positive changes in your life, consider a low-cost, confidential e-mail, chat, or video session.