Every year, my clients brace for November and December when the dreaded holiday season begins.
One woman told me recently that she was relieved to have Halloween and almost Thanksgiving behind her. She said that once turkey day was over, she would brace herself for the Hanukkah/Christmas season and finally New Year’s (I didn't want to mention Valentine's Day, which can also be rough).
For anyone not in a couple (and wanting to be*), those newly out of a relationship or marriage, or those without a supportive family, the emphasis on pairing up and being close to loved ones at this time of year can be excruciating.
There’s no way to avoid being exposed to the ads, the TV shows, billboards and messages that highlight this “most wonderful time” of year, short of never going out of your house and not looking at any media (print, television, or radio). It’s not just “happy family time,” it’s “in-your-face happy family time” and it can be miserable.
Do Holidays Have to Suck?
Absolutely not. You may not get around all of the loneliness or sadness during the holidays, but you will be happy to learn that there are things you can do to feel better and things you can do to make the holidays darker and worse: You get to choose.
I know it can be difficult to be in good self-care when you're feeling down, deflated and depressed but the truth is, it doesn't take much effort to take steps to feel better. It does take willingness, however, to dig yourself out of the dark hole divorce can put you in.
In the many years that I've been working with divorcing folks, I've seen people who were terrified of feeling lonely and depressed take control of their situation and turn things around.
How to Add to the Misery
Here are 12 ways people tend to make this time of year worse for themselves:
- They compare their “insides” to other people’s “outsides.” They tell themselves how incredibly happy all the couples are (not realizing that many of these people are simply putting on a happy face “for the kids,” and that some may even be planning to file divorce papers of their own come January.
- They go over and over in their minds about what a failure they are and all the things they “shoulda, coulda, woulda” done to still be part of their marriage and/or family (happy or not).
- They hang around with couples and feel like the odd person out.
- They subject themselves to people who shame them for being divorced.
- They allow friends to tell them about things their ex has said and done (especially when there is a new person in their ex’s life).
- They pretend to be fine and don’t ask for help.
- They stay alone when they need to be with others and hang out with others when they need to be alone.
- They don’t take care of their basic physical needs like eating and sleeping enough (I know these may be off-kilter from grief and depression and beyond your control to some extent).
- They take on the pressures and attitudes of others in addition to their own.
- They try to recreate old traditions that the single-family unit used to do.
- They cling to the past hurts and don’t move past them.
- They put everyone else’s needs ahead of their own.
How to Come Out Feeling Relatively Unscathed
On the contrary, those who feel empowered during the holiday season employ these 12 behaviors:
- They own their holidays by doing exactly what they want to do.
- They focus on where they are headed instead of where they have been.
- They don’t take on other people’s feelings or opinions about their divorce.
- They have a more realistic picture about other people's marriages and know that no relationship is without some problems (even when the couple seems perfectly matched).
- They eat well and get plenty of rest and relaxation (If necessary, they see their doctor to get help with these).
- They have adequate (and often more than adequate) emotional support.
- They journal and read inspirational literature (here are more suggested books or these).
- They create a new community of people in a similar position or transition.
- They allow themselves to have their raw grief (they don’t try to "make" their feelings go away)
- They look for the lesson (what are they supposed to learn through this painful time?).
- They know there is another side to this period of their lives and they increase their tolerance for delayed gratification
- They are resilient and roll with life’s punches pretty well.
Some clients tell me they don't want to make plans for the holidays because, "It's just another day." When they come to see me the following week, they are regretful. Therefore, I highly suggest to anyone divorcing to make plans with a caveat: Let whomever you've made the plans with know that you may need to cancel on the morning of the gathering, depending on how you feel that day. You may be in a fragile state and you don't want to be around a bunch of strangers or people you don't know that well.
It's better to have plans and cancel them than to not have plans and wake up wishing you could be around some friendly faces. As Nike says, "Just Do It." Make plans to be with at least one other person but let them know about your contingency plan. If this person tries to shame you into keeping your plan, cancel now or try to get others involved so your absence won't be noticed so much. With all the stress the holidays carry, you may not always be able to think and act from your highest and most mature self.
The good news is that, if you are engaging in any of the 12 habits that will add pain to this holiday season, you can make some changes now and you may even end up feeling better than you would if you were still married.
Also, keep in mind that the first year is often the hardest (especially for those who did not want the split) but, for most people, each year that passes is easier and easier. I have a saying: "Just because you can't see a solution, doesn't mean it doesn't exist."
Hang in there and, eventually, things really do start to change and ease.
*Many people prefer to be single after being in a relationship for many years—at least temporarily—so I don't assume that everyone wants to be a couple.
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