According to what might pass as popular opinion, the holiday season is supposed to be the best time of the year—festive family together time. But for many, it is a dreaded, painful season. For some it’s an acute reminder that their family is dysfunctional, or uncaring or nonexistent or that it’s been a really hard year. We humans don’t have it easy. I have always been particularly concerned for those who find the season difficult since historically in my practice, the days immediately following a holiday are spent listening to narratives about how painful holidays were and what family situation or member imposed some sort of emotional pain. And I too have had my share of awful holidays and have spent a good deal time trying to understand and figure out how to better handle a tough season.
So why are holidays so hard?
For one thing, our expectations and the reality of our experiences are misaligned. Many are under the impression that others truly do have picture –perfect family situations—harmony and fun times, and that they are the sole exception if that is not the case for them. For others, the reality is that there simply is no family or there are no family gathering to attend for many reasons such as geographic distance or insensitivity which translates into excluding some from holiday celebrations. And then there might be the expectation that gatherings are supposed to be enjoyed and fun, but instead might be a reminder that we all don’t get along with absolutely everyone, or that we are missing the presence of loved ones, or at that moment in time, it is just plain hard to be there.
Families are never perfect. A gathering of people does not ensure that moods and temperaments are all in sync. People are in their own worlds which include lack of sleep, poor health, depression, anxiety and the array of human emotions. Yes, we should be mindful and grateful of our blessings, but sadness, longing and emotional pain are all part of the human experience and might very well be present regardless of the fact that it is a holiday.
The reality is that most people do not enjoy blissful existences devoid of the everyday stuff that make everyone’s life trying. So holiday or not, stress might pervade the day. Particularly difficult are times when expectations are so different from what really does occur in family gatherings. So, for example, work is hard, you're sleep deprived, not feeling all that great and you are thrown together with a myriad of personalities, family, that have their own stuff going on. So it’s going to be really hard to tolerate that insensitive comment or outright harsh word.
And for those who are “Highly Sensitive,” (Elaine Aron) the 15-20% of the population, family gatherings can be viscerally painful. For those with high sensitivity, gatherings and celebrations can be overwhelming and difficult since they must deal with the sensory overload that comes with the cacophony of overstimulation from sounds, smells, conversations, vibes, food and moods in the room. Social gatherings represent challenges not necessarily joyful or fun.
Tips to get through the holidays.
1- Know that it’s not you and it’s not only you. No matter who you are or how you are, you deserve to be part of something. People make mistakes and but that’s not reason for exclusion. In my experience, it is the insensitivity of others and their stuff that allows things like overlooking you to happen.
2- Something as simple as a reminder of what it is that you’re supposed to be celebrating, the primary meaning of the holiday, might help refocus and reclaim the real reason for the season.
3- Plan to do something that you like to do.Watch something you really like. A movie, a game, and get yourself a present. Eat well on nice dishes if that’s possible.
Volunteer somewhere or volunteer to work. It is a gift you give your coworkers. It is a kind deed. It will be appreciated by someone who needs the day off and you make it possible for them to do so. One of my most cherished Thanksgiving memories is when I served as a chaplain in a hospital on Thanksgiving morning and was present to a family whose daughter had just died. The family spoke only Spanish and I don’t, and as I was attempting to say something to the mother, the entire room of family burst out in laughter at what I had said—I had no idea what I had actually said in Spanish but it seemed to be just what that family had needed at that awful moment. I was grateful for that moment of service.
4- Invite yourself somewhere. Call a friend who’s having a gathering and ask if you can join them. People usually are happy to include you and realize that they should have thought of it themselves.
5- Prepare and Plan to find something more acceptable to do for next year. In the meantime, join a community such as church or synagogue, bowling team, volunteer group, meetup, and make a friend.
And in case you feel suicidal, please please go to the nearest hospital emergency room.
Developing a sense of resilience is the key to surviving difficult circumstances. Understanding that we’re all just trying to survive is important. and realize that we're all doing the best that we can at any given moment. I know that many view the holidays through eyes of exhaustion for having done too much, being unappreciated, and all around, could use a vacation.
So, be nice to yourself, maybe skip the chore that can really wait to be done, and remind yourself that life is full of good and bad-- no one gets a pass card on that. Lower your expectations of people. Realize that when people get together, there's inevitably a conflict of moods. Shrug your shoulders and move on. You have a whole year to recover.
Aron, Elaine N. The Highly Sensitive Person How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You (Three Rivers Press, New York 1996)