By Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet, MSW, RSW
It is officially December. This year’s Santa Claus parade has come and gone, and with it came the city’s first dusting of frost. The stores are already decked with holiday fare and the festivities have begun. Whether you celebrate the holidays or not, the hoopla is largely inescapable.
The holidays create expectations of joy, togetherness, love and laughter. Yet, these expectations themselves can evoke feelings of stress, anxiety, grief, and loneliness. You might be running from one store to another, looking for the right gift, watching your budget burst under the strains and pressures of gift-giving. Or, your finances might not allow you to take part in this aspect at all. This time of year might pain you with reminders of lost loved ones, lost memories, lost times. Or, you might be pulled into a heightened sense of loneliness as the whole world seems happy and in-love. Interestingly, it’s the expectations of togetherness, love and laughter, both socially and self-imposed, that often drive our more troubling emotions.
Instead of just pushing through and enduring another season of emotional struggles, my hope is that we consciously set our intentions this year. What emotions do we anticipate showing up, and how might we strategize for better coping and emotional wellness this holiday season?
While the image of a big happy egg nog-drinking, laughing, dancing family is a nice one, it’s not the reality for many if not most of us. Any time you take a group of people and put them together for decades, let each personality stew with the other, and add in some love and need for approval, you’re bound to get some complexities of flavour.
The truth is, we are more likely to be hurt and pained by those close to us than anybody else in the world. While your next-door neighbour could outright question your character and not get so much as a response, when a family member cocks an eyebrow at your outfit, the tears and anger bubble up like a boiling kettle.
People get hurt by their family members because of a biological need to feel loved and accepted. This need evolves from our physical reliance on our parents as infants. If we have experienced past pains, the fear and hurt will have felt a threat to our very survival, since for a baby, emotional distance in a parent is threatening to survival. (Baby brain interprets lack of care and danger alarm bells ring, “How can this person care for me appropriately if they’re not emotionally invested?”)
Early perceptions of lack of care or love, no matter how small, can frighten and unsettle us so deeply that we will likely scan for further potential threats all the way through adulthood. Thus, if we glean the slightest inkling that we are not wholly loved, accepted and cared for by those we deem significant, it elicits strong survival mechanisms of fear (I am in danger) and shame (it must be my fault), and makes us feel altogether unsettled, insecure and ultimately unsafe, (which in-turn can lead us to anger – a defence against a perceived threat.)
The important difference is, as adults, we are no longer physically dependent on our family members and with time, we can retrain our brains to understand this. We can step back and remember that their lack of care might be largely about their capacity to show emotion and affection read: a reflection on them, not you.
There is no quick and dirty way to resolve the pain and hurt of years of family strife, but there are a few things we can all do to help mitigate the pain and take care of ourselves this holiday season.
- Build your healthy image of yourself to hold onto. Remind yourself of all of the things that make you a wonderful, loveable person, regardless of family members’ opinions. Starting here will make you less vulnerable to any criticism and hurt. If you are feeling good about yourself, you will likely be more capable of feeling strong and offering genuine love and understanding to your family. You might also bring the mantra, “Who cares what ______ thinks?” into your daily experience, so you’re primed and ready by the time you come face-to-face with a critical or judgemental relative.
- Remember you didn’t cause the problem and you can’t fix it. It is easy to take on blame, too easy. And we do it because it hurts too much to see our significant loved ones are not capable of giving us the love we need. Self-blame offers us a false sense of safety and security – “if I am the problem, I can fix it”. But with it comes debilitating shame, fear and sadness to name a few. It is so hard to remember that blaming yourself is likely inaccurate and unhelpful. But holding back on self-blame and an attempt to fix, can bring perspective and release a whole lot of stress, frustration and shame.
- There just might not be enough love to go around in your family. Adult or not, depending on your parents’ personality style, and their own upbringing, they might just not be capable of giving their children the love that they need. Recognizing that might help you to stop blaming yourself or trying to force it to be better. It might even release tensions with your siblings, once you recognize they are likely just feeling the same as you.\
Perfectionist stress & anxiety
It is not hard to get swept up in an idea of holiday perfection – getting the perfect gifts, making the perfect recipes, the perfect events, activities, and so on. The expectation is that closing in on perfection will optimize the holiday experience for you and those you love. But when we step back and truly question whether these perfections will actually make or break our holiday experience, we can usually recognize the dysfunction.
More often than not, it is the frantic drive for perfection that actually robs us (and those around us) of experiencing the moments that we aim to cherish. What most of us truly want for the holidays is a sense of peace, happiness, connection and love.
Pulling back on your perfectionistic tendencies can be as simple as digging deep and trying hard to answer the questions below as authentically as possible.
a) What is all the perfectionism about? What do I truly want out of this holiday season?
b) What will really happen if every external detail is not perfect – will it truly detract from this goal? Is it possible that a more focused and content version of myself is the greater gift?
Then, take another step back and ask yourself:
c) What holiday tasks will actually add to my enjoyment, and what will only bring more stress and turmoil to me and/or those I love?
It would be nice if we could just ask these questions once, find the answer and be done with it. Sadly, perfectionistic thoughts do not work that way. They have a way of creeping back over and over again, even when we’ve already challenged and discarded them. The key is to watch for tiny indicators of mounting stress and anxiety. It could be a twinge or twist in your stomach, irritability with your loved ones, or just going at your full speed. Once you’ve recognized it and labeled it as perfectionistic stress and anxiety, try your best to take a step back, just for a moment. Ask yourself the above questions again and again, every time you see yourself being swept up by the perfectionistic hoopla. The more you do it, the more your thought patterns will alter over time, and eventually the perfectionistic habit will begin to be broken.
To prepare for and prevent the struggle with your conflicting brain – you might try any one of these tips below:
Try your best to make your tasks a choice, not a necessity.
- Stop before starting. Before you begin each holiday task – question whether you need to do and whether you truly want to do it.
- Delegate. Find helpful others to join in for some added support and possibly more togetherness!
- Make a list of tasks in order of priority. Work your way down the list, leaving the less important stuff to be done only if you have the time, energy and interest.
- Flat out reduce what you take on and remember that everyone else will benefit if you are relaxed and able to truly enjoy the holiday season.
The social message is strong, the holidays are a time for being with the ones we love most. They mark the passage of time, and are a milestone that we share. If this is so, the notion of surviving through a holiday season after the loss of a loved one, recent or not, can seem unbearable.
Grief arrives due to attachments with others: our biological need to feel connected for purposes of emotional safety and security. If this attachment is ruptured by loss, our minds go into overdrive, attempting to process the tension of this loss and an intense desire to maintain our understanding of the world prior to it.
Grief is a natural and necessary process that allows us to gain understanding and make sense of the world without our loved one(s). All too often, however, the pain of grief seems too much to handle, so we try our best to push through without acknowledging our pain nor nurturing ourselves through it. Pushing grief aside can create several emotional difficulties, as grief, left unprocessed or suppressed, will likely only endure, and over time, can create symptoms of anxiety and depression.
If it feels possible, try your best not to stifle grief emotions just because it’s the holidays.
Try to acknowledge your grief and allow it in to the holiday season as much as feels possible for you. The meaning you take from the holidays must evolve to include your grief, it just has to, as the loss is the new reality. The holidays will be different and they will likely be difficult, and it might feel a relief to start by simply acknowledging that.
If possible, involve any or all close loved ones, and create a new tradition, one that honours the memory of your loved one who is no longer with you. For example, you could dedicate a candle in your home to light in memory of your loved one at all important moments. Spend some time considering a new tradition that works for you.
Remember that everyone’s grief will show up differently. If your loved ones do not want to take part in your grieving, that is their choice and that is okay. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you, or them and it shouldn’t stop you from allowing your own grieving experience and truly feeling and doing what you need to. The consequences of either not allowing the pain that you feel, or trying to force others to express theirs are both grave.
There is clearly no quick and easy cure for grief, but processing and feeling it will help you move toward the resolution and understanding you deserve. When you are ready, you might consider seeking a qualified grief therapist to help you process and make sense of your grief.
Holiday depression & loneliness
That blinding image of love and togetherness can heighten a sense of loneliness and depression for so many of us during the holiday season. Holiday cheer can feel painful and debilitating when you’re in the throes of depression or loneliness. If you are feeling lonely or low mood this holiday season, remember, you are not the only one – millions of people worldwide are effected negatively by this time of year.
If you are on your own, that only means you need your own support and self-care more than ever. So please don’t neglect yourself. There are several things you can do to cope with low mood and loneliness during this time:
1. Remember you are not the only one. Holiday depression will likely effect millions worldwide. Remembering others feel this too will remind you you are only human and hopefully keep you from falling into more damaging thoughts that it is just you, and thus that you are fundamentally flawed, no good and doomed.
2. Celebrate the holidays in a different way. Remember that the holidays was built on a time of spiritual reflection – or in the tradition of yule, a celebration of warmth to endure the winter months ahead. Treat this time as one of renewal and spiritual refreshment, however that fits for you.
3. Nurture yourself. Remember that negative thoughts about yourself are not motivating, and what not help you to make a change – they have the opposite effect. Do what you can to use this time to care for your ailing emotions by countering your self-critical thoughts and nurturing yourself in every way possible. Do whatever feels safe and brings you comfort. For example, create a schedule that fills each day with activities that meet your emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual needs.
4. Reach out in small ways that feel possible. If you don’t have loved ones, seek out new relationships, small interactions wherever you can. Even small interactions and acts of kindness can contribute to your overall sense of compassion and self-compassion. Volunteering, helping an acquaintance or offering small kindnesses to others can remind you that you are part of the world and give you a greater sense of peace and perspective when your instincts might be to retreat from others wholly.
5. Seek support. If you are not ready to reach out socially, seek the support of qualified professionals either a counsellor, therapist, or even a support line to process your emotions and get support from a trusted other.*
There is no quick and easy cure for depression or loneliness, but accepting your emotions and taking care of yourself as best you can will help you feel a greater sense of peace and wellbeing through the holiday season. When you are ready, reaching out to your family doctor, you naturopathic doctor and seeking a qualified CBT therapist can help you begin your healing.
*If depression symptoms provoke suicidal thoughts please seek support from a qualified mental health professional by calling 911 or attending the emergency room at your nearest hospital.
Any and all of these steps are easier said than done, and often require some help and support. If you are struggling with any of the above difficulties you might benefit from the support of a qualified CBT therapist.
I maintain a regular mental health blog on the darouwellness.com site, so check back in for more on coping with anxiety, depression, insomnia, emotional difficulties, trauma and general coping and mental wellness.
Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet is a Mental Health Therapist, Supervisor and Instructor.