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What to Do When “Home for the Holidays” Is impossible

We may not control the circumstances, but we can control how we regard them.

Many people are set to spend this holiday season away from their loved ones as the country continues to wrestle with the menacing Covid-19 pandemic, a fact that will no doubt bring about stress and discomfort for some.

Forced separation from family during the holiday season may be distressing for three main reasons.

The first reason relates to content: We are attached to our loved ones. Relationships are the chief source of strength and well-being in our lives. From day one, the human infant is dependent on connections with others for survival, and this dependency animates the core of our psychological architecture. Our tribal affiliations are the most powerful, fundamental aspect of our sense of identity. Separations from loved ones in effect disrupt the self and are painful because they echo in our psychic core as losses, signals of vulnerability, and danger.

The second reason pertains to process: We are attached to our habits. Specifically, our tribal rituals and traditions are essential for our sense of safety, stability, and comfort. They’re the signposts and anchors that guide and stabilize our journey. When our habits and traditions are disrupted, we feel distressed and less safe.

The third reason has to do with the nature of our emotional architecture: We contain emotional multitudes. The fact is, not everyone is thoroughly upset that they won’t see the family this holiday season. For many, holiday gatherings are occasions of stress, for multiple reasons: Perhaps you don’t get along with family members. Perhaps going back home floats memories of troubled times in your past. Perhaps you can’t really afford the travel expense. Perhaps you tend to set your expectations too high and become disappointed.

Either way, these ambivalent feelings may themselves cause distress, because we may feel guilty for having them. Yet these kinds of feelings are normal and universal. In fact, everyone we love we also resent to some degree because they have the power to hurt us. We don’t like to be overpowered and we don’t like to get hurt. Given this, it is important, from the perspective of mental health, to normalize and allow ourselves to feel these emotions. Ambivalence is not the end of the world, it's just the world.

Image by Prawny for Pixabay
Source: Image by Prawny for Pixabay

Another important thing to recognize in this context is that while we often have no control over circumstances, we always have some control over how to regard them.

As the psychologist Viktor Frankl famously wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Those who are stranded away from family and friends right now may perceive their situation first as a crisis. But there can be an opportunity in crisis, on two levels.

First, there’s an opportunity to see old things with new eyes. “You never know what you got 'til it’s gone,” from the classic Joni Mitchell song. Indeed, this occasion of holiday disappointment may help us appreciate fully some relations, events, and things we’ve grown habituated to and stopped valuing properly—like a simple hug. This situation can teach us not to take things and people in our lives for granted. It may jolt us out of our routine-induced, semiconscious stupor in which so many worthy things in our lives no longer register for the (ironic) reason that they are ever-present.

Second, new circumstances inevitably create new learning opportunities. If we choose to become curious about this new situation, as opposed to coiling up in our disappointment, then we may open ourselves to discovery. Becoming curious about the situation (what is demanded of me here?) and about ourselves (how am I responding?) may actually produce new learning about both: how to improvise; how to adjust and persevere; how to tolerate difficult feelings, etc. Such lessons can be valuable and are likely to serve us well next year and beyond.

Finally, it’s useful to remember that this particular Covid-19 crisis is going to end soon. Unlike several months ago, we know now that we will beat this pandemic, and we know how—with vaccines and more effective leadership. Knowing that relief is near should help us maintain our caution and discipline a bit longer. Seeing the successful endpoint is generally motivating. Perhaps having gone through this holiday season will help make the next one all the more meaningful.

More from Noam Shpancer Ph.D.
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