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5 Ways Unloved Daughters Can Manage Seasonal Sadness

1. Identify your emotions and their roots as clearly as you can.

Key points

  • While many experience holiday stress, adult daughters with fraying or non-existent ties to their families of origin may suffer more.
  • The holiday season can act as an echo chamber, magnifying insecurities and feelings left over from childhood.
  • Actively combatting holiday sadness must begin with pinpointing precisely what you are feeling.
 Anthony Tran/Unsplash
Source: Anthony Tran/Unsplash

Yes, it’s that time of year again, and if your family of origin is or was toxic or highly fractious, the chances are good that you’re feeling that old familiar ache—the one you’d always hoped would fade by the time you got to be an adult. It may well be that even though you’ve established your own life—even for decades and a good one at that—you’re still waiting for the ache to disappear, and it hasn’t.

That deep sense of never having belonged—the legacy of childhood—gets new energy from the imagery with which we’re bombarded. It’s an endless tape of tight family circles and extended bonds complete with smiling people at tables loaded with food, all having a grand old time. It’s amplified every time anyone asks, “So, what are you doing for the holidays?” and, not waiting for your answer, takes the opportunity to regale you with all the fabulous family get-togethers she has planned. It’s no wonder that many of us feel as though we’re locked out of the shop where all the goodies are kept, our noses pressed to the windows, staring at the pretty cakes and pastries we’ll never eat.

But for all of that, there is much we can do, especially when we realize where that color blue is coming from during a season when losses are more keenly felt.

5 things you can do proactively in the holiday season

Some of you will find yourself facing rough seas as you share the holidays with members of your family of origin while others of you will navigate the waters of estrangement which, during this season, may trigger sadness, pain, or anger, even though you are confident about your choice. Regardless of which group you find yourself aligned with, the first step is key for both.

1. Identify your emotions and their roots as clearly as you can.

Being able to label feelings with precision is an essential part of emotional intelligence as set forth by John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey. Daughters who grew up in dysfunctional households—in which they were required to deny, push off from, or hide their feelings—are likely to have difficulty pinpointing precisely what they are feeling. Of course, you can’t begin to manage an emotion until you know what it is and why you are feeling it in the moment.

Remember that you need to identify the emotion first—is it anxiety or fear? Are you angry or sad? And then work back to its roots. The following is drawn from an interview I did with Clara a few years ago:

“Christmas was a huge stressor for me and caused havoc in my own family until, finally, my husband pointed out the obvious, and I went into therapy. I’d been deemed so lacking by my mum all of my life that I became this perfectionist about the holidays. I wouldn’t allow the kids to hang the ornaments; it was like I was a military commander. Nothing was spontaneous because I needed total perfection. They lined up for photos in clothes I chose so we’d look great and which they hated. My needs sucked all the fun out of everything, I went into therapy, and my little family entered the world of perfectly imperfect, and our holidays are lovely.”

Be a detective and figure out precisely what is getting to you and why. Keep in mind that using journaling to explore your emotions has been shown to be effective; working with a gifted therapist certainly can help you cut to the chase.

2. Re-imagine expectations realistically.

If you are getting together with family, remember that the only behavior you can change or control is your own. Think about why you are participating in the gathering and be honest about your expectations; if there’s always drama of some kind, prepare yourself for dealing with it in the most productive way possible. Remind yourself that boundaries are a normal part of the discourse, and no one has the right to verbally abuse you or put you down; plan ahead and decide how you are going to respond if a situation comes up. The important thing is for you to maintain your sense of composure, rather than melting down into reactivity. If, upon reflection, the idea of going fills you with dread, pull on your Big Girl Pants and make a decision, reminding yourself that, yes, adults can make choices.

If you’re estranged or have gone low contact and are spending the holidays with your own offspring, partner or spouse, or friends, resist the impulse to put on a show; the presentation is secondary to the company you’re keeping. Being marooned in the kitchen doesn’t make a holiday joyous or enjoyable, and yes, shortcutting is always OK. The holidays aren’t about proving your self-worth and if your guests cared most about the food, they’d have booked a restaurant.

3. Go light on social media.

Remember that social media is highly curated and more about braggadocio than an honest appraisal. If you are feeling iffy, skip other people’s fluff. It is designed to make you feel envious or somehow inadequate.

4. Go heavy on self-care.

And why not? If you’re feeling stressed, do something that relaxes you; it can be frivolous, like getting your nails done or making time to do something you love doing, like taking a long walk or starting a new craft project without feeling you’ve got to get it done.

There are lots of ways to feel good about you and the life you are living, and one of my favorites is drawn from a research study that showed people felt better once they subtracted their blessings rather than counting them. The study was inspired by the scene in that holiday perennial, It’s a Wonderful Life, when Clarence the angel shows George Bailey how the lives of the people he loves would have been diminished had he never been born. So focus on subtracting those blessings and see how your vision shifts from feeling filled with loss to filled with gratitude.

5. Get into the flow by being creative.

Studies show that people are able to self-calm and tamp down stress by visualizing a person or place that makes them feel safe and supported; securely attached people do this unconsciously, but it’s a technique everyone can learn. Another possibility is creating what I call a “memory box or book,” which I developed for The Daughter Detox Companion Workbook. Looking at photos on your phone is a passive activity, but gathering photos of special moments, collecting inspirational sayings, and other mementos is highly active. Create a scrapbook with these images and sayings or, if you like, keep them in a special box. I collect rocks and pinecones on my travels and they, along with photos, are things I look at (and hold) when I need to feel grounded.

It’s true that the holiday season can be a stressor, but there’s no need to feel as though you are helpless and doomed to be pounded by the rough waters; these strategies can serve as your life jacket.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2021.

Facebook image: eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock


Mayer, John D. and Peter Salovey, “What is Emotional Intelligence,” in Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence, edited by Peter Salovery and D.J. Slyper (New York: Basic Books, 1997.)

Koo, Minkyung, Sara B, Agoe, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert,” It’s a Wonderful Life; Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 95, no.5 (2008), 1217-1224.