The holiday season is nostalgia in overdrive. For some, it’s all about yearly traditions that you’ve counted on since you wore footie pajamas unironically. But for others, the season emphasizes how much has changed since then. This can be a hard time, and if you’re one of the many people who are feeling a malicious desire to sneak over to your neighbour’s yard, Grinch-style, and remove each of their hyperactive blinking decorative bulbs one by one while cackling to yourself, there are some coping strategies to make the holiday easier that don’t involve vandalism and making children cry.
Holiday traditions shift for a number of reasons. Parents split up, siblings move, you go through a break up, loved ones are lost, new loved ones are added to the mix. These changes can be good or bad. New traditions are born and old baggage can be relieved, but sometimes, something precious disappears forever, leaving only a sinking feeling in your stomach and a reeling sensation of grief or regret. If you’ve had a tough year, the holidays can be a stark reminder, touching a raw nerve. Even buying a latte can mean carrying a painful trigger around.
“All the reminders stimulate emotion and trauma,” says Victoria Lorient-Faibish, a Toronto-based Canadian Certified Councillor and Holistic Psychotherapist with a Masters of Education Psychology. “That’s why I say, do something different.” Jothi Ramesh, a psychotherapist and social worker in Scarborough, says it’s about rediscovering what the day looks like for you. If you can’t, or don’t want to, spend the day with family, she suggests you do something that will make you feel good. That could mean going to the spa, or participating in a community event. Giving back to the community will make you feel connected and help avoid doing what many experts agree is the most dangerous thing you can do: Isolate yourself.
Even though you might not want to participate in traditional activities that act as triggers, you should still let others take care of you. “This is a time to reach out to friends and family,” says Toronto psychologist Dr. Marilyn Miller.[http://drmarilynmiller.com/] And don’t hole yourself up in your house for fear of being the only Grinch amid a party of Cindy Lou Whos. “Don’t expect to have cheerful, happy feelings. Accept that you are feeling sad, and that people care about you.” No one is expecting you to be a beacon of holiday cheer—they understand you’re in pain, and want to help.
Both Lorient-Faibish and Ramesh emphasize that the holidays can be a difficult time for everyone. “Try not to compare your insides with what other people’s outsides look like,” says Lorient-Faibish. While it may feel like you’re the only one suffering this holiday, she reminds us that everyone has something, their own particular sadness or trigger. “Everyone can relate if things aren’t going smoothly. It’s just the commercials on TV that make us feel like we’re crazy.”
The most important thing is to listen to what you’re feeling and act accordingly. If you want to engage with the holiday and start building some new traditions, “let other people do the work on this particular Christmas,” recommends Dr. Miller. Don’t over-commit, or feel obligated to uphold responsibilities you’ve traditionally been in charge of. Do what you can. If you love the holidays and want to keep busy, Lorient-Faibish recommends keeping yourself occupied with baking and crafts. This will help you keep your days full, and things in perspective. “An hour of grieving is acceptable,” she says. “A day of grieving is not.” Whether you spend Christmas day seeing a movie with a friend who promises never to mention the C-word, spend time with isolated seniors who would otherwise be alone, or keep your friend company at her family dinner so she has back-up when the drunk relatives start in on her decision to get a PhD in philosophy, plan something that day that will ensure you’re surrounded by support, not painful memories.
If you’re the one supporting someone this season, there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, Lorient-Faibish says you have to make sure you have the emotional strength to take on someone else’s pain. This is an intense time of year for everyone, and if you commit to support that you’re not capable of giving, you will do more harm than good. If you can be a source of strength, Dr. Miller advises you to be there with the person—call and check in, invite them out, say you will come over. “Be inclusive,” says Lorient-Faibish, “But don’t overwhelm them with too many solutions. Offer to be someone who is just a listening ear.” Invite them to join you for the holiday if they want to do something for the holiday, and try to listen to what they really need—whether it’s a welcome seat at your family’s table, or a buddy to order Chinese with.
The most important thing? Don’t be too hard on yourself. Change is rough, and it sucks, but it will get easier, and you will find new traditions to cherish, and important ways to remember.