Joel tells me he hates the holidays. "They're just so full of hypocrisy," he says. "Everybody's supposed to be happy, walking around bursting with holiday cheer, when what they're really filled with is dread."
Since I'm his therapist, I get to ignore his comment about the hypocrisy and go to what sounds like the underlying issue for him, which I think is the question of what he's dreading about the holidays. I ask him what he thinks he might be uneasy about. "Everything," he says. His face crumples. "I feel like the little girl in that story about 'yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,'" he said. "I used to look forward to this time of year, even though it's so hokey. I'm Jewish, but I love Christmas music and Christmas trees and Christmas decorations. And I love that it's vacation time for me and my family." Joel is a professor at a college. "But the fun has gone and I feel like a wet blanket. My kids are out of college and have to work during the holidays and can only come home for a few days; and my wife is talking about maybe traveling instead of staying home. She's been looking at airfares for London - keeps telling me how much I'd enjoy an old fashioned English Christmas."
"And you don't think you would?" I ask.
"No. No. and No," he says. "This is a time to be home, surrounded by loving family. I don't want to go away. But I don't want my wife to be unhappy, either. I love her and don't want to be selfish and unfair to her."
Joel had a history of phobias, including one of flying, but in recent years most of his fears had been under control; so I wondered aloud if there might be something going on that was triggering some of them again. "It's the holidays," he said. "They just stir up so much stuff!"
It's true. Whatever our religious background and current beliefs might be, the holiday season stirs up powerful and often conflicting emotions for many, if not most of us. Joel, for example, had celebrated Hannukah as a child. "I loved the ritual of lighting the candles and making potato latkes (pancakes); and I loved - still love - the donuts that you can only get at this time of year! But I couldn't help wondering why Santa didn't come to Jewish homes. Was there something he knew about Jews that my parents weren't telling me? Was he anti-Semitic? So when I had kids, we had Santa and Hannukah. Nothing big. Just wanted to let my own children know that Santa was thinking of them, too!"
As his children got older, other rituals became part of the holiday season. A huge "interfaith" celebratory meal with family and friends on Christmas night, which sometimes coincided with at least one night of Hannukah; a traditional trip to the local ski area, for snowboarding and skiing and hot chocolate with another family whose children were all about the same age as Joel's. "But now it's not happening anymore," he said. "Everybody's grown up and away. Even the dinner has lost its appeal."
As we talked about these losses, Joel began to realize that his criticism that everyone else was being a phony about the holidays stemmed from his own feeling that he would have to "ramp it up and fake being happy this year. I'm the one who's going to be a hypocrite," he said somberly. And being false about his feelings was one of the triggers of his phobias, we had learned years ago.
But why did he have to be a phony? As we teased out some of the other issues, it became clear to me that Joel was struggling with another common theme of the holidays: feelings of loss. These feelings may take the form of disappointment and anger, such as, "I never get the presents I really want," or "Nobody really cares about me and what I need." They can be represented in sadness, whether it's that our children are not coming home to celebrate or, with younger children, that we aren't creating the kind of holiday that our parents created for us. Conversely, memories of disappointments during the holidays also get stirred up, ranging from small to large: "I don't know why my parents couldn't get me a bike when it was all I wanted, and I wanted it so badly" to "I hated that my parents always got drunk on the holidays," to "I always feel sad because my Mom passed away just before the holidays."
These memories can be painful in themselves, but they are also symbolic. They may represent a whole bunch of childhood and adult losses and disappointments, bundled into one group at this time of year. They may stir up anxiety about possible future losses. All of this can be useful grist for therapy, but in your daily life what's important is to try to find a way to put them into their proper place, to tell yourself, "yes, these are sad memories and normal anxieties, but now what can I do to find some pleasure - for myself and maybe also for my loved ones - during this holiday season."
There are many possible solutions. I've written about some of them in other posts, including one on having a happy interfaith holiday, one on the giving tree syndrome, and one on how to cope with Thanksgiving Day blues which I've been told is also useful on other holidays.
Following some of these ideas, Joel found some interesting solutions for himself. First, he asked his wife to take a walk with him to look at Christmas decorations in the city. They stopped at a small café and had hot chocolate and found themselves talking about what else they could do to enjoy the season. Neither had ever been to the Christmas show at Radio City, so they talked about the possibility of going to see it. They also considered going to a production of the Nutcracker Ballet (which seems to be performed everywhere this season), but finally they decided to go to an open sing of Handel's Messiah. "Singing out loud, bellowing out the music, even though I don't sing well and really could only follow the "Hallelujah!" was so wonderful," Joel told me. When they went home they lit Hannukah candles and listened to Hannukah music.
"And I remembered, finally, that I love this season because it's full of light and color and pretty music. I have a wonderful family who I love, and even if they can't come home to help me celebrate, I know they love me - most of the time! And that's all I need to think about for the moment."
teaser image from: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/450220/survive_celebrati...