Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Bringing Emotional Equilibrium To The Holidays

Balance involves consciously participating within the limits of your capacity.

CC0 Creative Commons
Source: CC0 Creative Commons

The holiday season closes the door on the preceding year. For most people, it’s a multicolored year—some combination of bright and dark—steeped in varying shades of joy and sorrow, connection and loss. As a result, frequently the holidays are a very mixed bag of experience that can range from the beautiful to the brutal.

Emotional equilibrium occurs when we allow ourselves to present with whatever feelings come up, without suppressing them or being suffocated by them, and learning to observe and accept them without judging them—or ourselves.

The wish, as well as the impulse to avoid emotional pain is easily understandable —who wants to be in pain?! And, there is a natural tendency to think (however unconsciously) that if we can just avoid experiencing the pain, it won’t affect us. Unfortunately, attempts to keep painful emotions at a distance always fail, even though they may seem to work temporarily. All forms of experiential avoidance ultimately boomerang on us by extending those painful emotions and amplifying the suffering connected to them.

Suffering is a function of how people interpret their pain (be it emotional or physical) and the beliefs they attach to it. There is a direct correlation between the amount of effort expended to avoid pain and the degree of suffering experienced—the harder someone works to avoid pain, the greater his or her suffering tends to be.

Alcohol and other drugs are one such well-worn avoidance strategy. Using substances and other addictive behaviors to feel “good” or “better” is a shortcut that inevitably leads to a dead end. Avoidance doesn’t work because pain is an inevitable part of life. It is an essential aspect of being human. It is in how we choose to respond to the pain we experience that determines whether we get stuck in trying to outrun, numb, or fight against it, or respond skillfully to it with presence and acceptance, which allows it to run its course and in time dissipate.

It is important to clarify that acceptance does not equal approval. We can learn to accept and co-exist with uncomfortable, distressing emotions, even when we don’t like them, and even when we dislike them intensely.

When we are under their influence, intense emotions can feel like they will last forever. However, whether they are painful or pleasurable, feelings are always temporary. They come and go like guests who come to visit: some are welcome and we’re happy to see them; others, not so much. Some leave sooner than we would like and others grotesquely overstay—but eventually they all leave.

The time from Thanksgiving through the New Year revolves around the unrelenting themes of gratitude, abundance, and celebration. But major holidays, especially those that emphasize family and social connection can precipitate profound experiences of loss related to significant others who have passed or other serious life changes that leave us grieving what is no longer available to us, such as relationships, jobs/careers, homes, and health/physical functioning. Gratitude doesn’t erase or even necessarily diminish grief and vice versa. These two powerful emotional states can exist side by side, even if in any particular moment, one is much more prominent than the other.

In Island, Aldous Huxley wrote about “the excruciating presence of an absence.” Empty spaces seem to spit in the face of gratitude. It’s okay to not feel grateful. Know this for yourself and be mindful about advising anyone how they “should” feel. In fact, telling someone that they should feel this way or shouldn’t feel that way is among the most emotionally disrespectful things you can do.

Frequently during major holidays there's a chasm—between what families and friends desire, including implicit or explicit demands to get in “the holiday spirit,” and what you, as an individual, want and need for yourself.

It’s important to know that the holidays don’t have to feel like a celebration. You can give yourself permission to simply be where you are emotionally. Give yourself a break by letting go of the need to meet the expectations of others, as well as those you may have internalized such that the expectations of others have become expectations you now place on yourself. Be conscious of your evolving needs for emotional and physical space, and give yourself the gift of that space as necessary.

Practicing self-compassion, kindness, and forgiveness by staying in conscious contact with the limitations of your time, energy, and finances, and carving our time for self-care is even more essential during times of increased stress, such as major holidays. You can find a balance that meets your needs between participating in holiday festivities and self-care that includes such basics as reasonably healthy eating (in terms of what and how much you eat), physical movement/exercise—as little as 10 minutes of exercise a day can help improve your mood and reduce feelings of anxiety[1], and getting decent sleep.

When we can develop the capacity to keep our minds and hearts open to our experience—both the beautiful and the brutal—our emotional life becomes more balanced and peaceful. The waves of feelings toss us about less as they diminish (even ever-so-slightly) in size and intensity, and are less likely to swamp us. Learning to recognize, be present, and make peace with the parts of ourselves that we may struggle with, makes it possible to be more okay with and accepting of whatever arises. This is an essential element of the art and science of living.

Copyright 2017 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain and Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery (coming July, 2018).


[1] Pain Medicine, Volume 11, Issue 4, 1 April 2010, Pages 524–529,

More from Dan Mager MSW
More from Psychology Today