Sometimes holidays suck.
If you follow The Soul of a Journey on Facebook, you know that the blog is lagging slightly behind. I’m still writing about Ho Chi Minh, but I’m currently in Cambodia, where I’ve just done a fundraiser to benefit some local folks.
I’ll post the whole story in lots of detail soon, and with lots of pictures. Right now I just want to say that I spent Christmas Day with strangers, half a world from home. It was the hottest, dustiest, most exhausting Christmas of my life, but it was full of Christmas spirit and I loved it. It was the kind of day that makes me wonder if I can ever stop traveling.
I hope your holiday touched you in some way, whether it was traditional or not. If not, let me tell you that my holidays haven’t always been good. I’ve had a lot of happy, cozy, family Christmases in my life, but I’ve also spent Christmases homeless; had bad family experiences; dealt with grief, divorce, loneliness, crushing poverty.
Last Christmas I couldn’t stand for more than 20 minutes, and didn’t know why. I wasn’t sure if I’d be spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair. I came dangerously close to a breakdown. The Christmas before that, I was devastated by the sudden end of my engagement and only got through it with the help of dear friends.
I’m here to tell you that if your holiday was difficult or disappointing or downright hellish, you are not alone, it is not your fault, and there is nothing selfish or wrong or “pathetic” about being unhappy during the holidays. Feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are. It’s especially hard to be in pain when you’re surrounded by pressure to feel some kind of joy or spirit and it’s just not there for you.
The thing about rough holiday experiences is that you have to love yourself through them. You have to give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel, and not beat yourself up over it.
Start Setting Up Next Year’s Magic Now
But the wonderful thing is that you have a whole year to figure out how to fix it. As you know, I’m all about taking charge of your life and molding into whatever pleases you. I usually indulge all my advice-giving nature in the articles I write for WebPsychology.com, because I’m afraid it will come off as condescending here. But sometimes you need a little help to get unstuck, and I have a LOT of experience with that, so I’m granting myself an exception. Here are some ideas off the top of my head, things I’ve either done myself or have researched & written about.
Create new traditions. If you’re just mildly dissatisfied with your holidays — they’re too commercial, they seem shallow — what would be more meaningful to you? Some possibilities:
- Creative activities: Making ornaments or gingerbread houses
- Social activities: Attending or hosting events
- More rituals/traditions: Visiting area light shows, caroling, church services, holiday movie nights with friends or family, singing carols in the car while looking at yard displays — anything you decide to do every year becomes a tradition.
Give of yourself. My mother used to quote some famous psychologist who said that the best way to lift your mood is to reach outside yourself and do something for others every day. And if you’re too depressed to do something for others, he said you should just think every day about what you might do for others if you had the energy. There is research to back this up, and I can personally vouch for it 100% if what you’re feeling is lethargy or dissatisfaction. If you’re severely clinically depressed, you might need to stick to the less-tested “thinking about it” end of expectations, but it’s free and has no known negative side effects, so why not? Make a list of causes that matter to you and find out how to get involved. By this time next year, your holidays will be full of giving opportunities.
Before you can make holiday magic for yourself, though, you may need to address some other issues.
If you’re dealing with loss, divorce, or grief, give yourself plenty of time. But it also might help to completely change up your holiday plans. Do something radically different with your day. Ask your family about moving the celebration to a different family member’s home so the “hole” left by the missing person is less glaring. Or skip the extended family gatherings for a year or two and have Chinese takeout and Netflix, take a road trip, check into a local hotel, have tacos for dinner, go to the movies, either alone or with your immediate family or friends. If you don’t usually attend church services, maybe you’d like to do that. The point is to shake things up for the first year or two until you feel more settled, then build new traditions around your new family structure.
If you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), there are lots of things you can try. Here are the best research-based remedies I found for that.
If your family is dysfunctional and spending time with them is hard, you are far from alone. My advice is to set up your own traditions that are meaningful to you and make as little of an appearance at family gatherings as you want. Charitable Christmas acts serve the double duty of lifting your mood and gettiing you off the hook easily. It’s harder for people to argue with statements like “I’ll stop by to exchange gifts with you, but I’m hosting a gathering for friends who don’t have family nearby this year so I can’t stay” or “..I’m serving Christmas dinner to the homeless” or “I’m putting on a Christmas show for the senior center” or even “I’m delivering gifts to the dogs and cats at the animal shelter.” But you don’t have to cite charity to escape. You have a whole year to practice quietly stating that you’re taking care of yourself without explaining yourself. “I’ve decided to do something different for Christmas this year, but I hope you all have a great holiday!” The only answer you need to give to “What? How can you do that, it’s Christmas!” is “I know, but I’ve decided this is what I want right now. Hey, how about those Packers?”
The important thing is to remember that you’re not responsible for anyone’s happiness but your own. Figure out what a satisfying holiday might look like for you, and then create it for yourself.
Resolve to Address Ongoing Issues
Sometimes the holidays are a prism that magnifies issues in your everyday life. It’s uncomfortable as hell, but it gives you an opportunity to see things clearly and make changes.
If you’re lonely at the holidays, join some clubs or groups or take a class. Making friends requires that you see the same people regularly in a relaxed environment where there’s time for conversation. Check your YMCA or community college for classes. Choose some Meetup groups to try, or join a book club at your local bookstore or library. Work on a political campaign. Do some volunteer work.
If you’re lonely because you want romance, you can try some online or offline dating services. Although, from my own experience, I’d say there’s more personal growth and long-term security in learning to enjoy your own company, go on solo dates, and develop freindships. No reason you can’t work the issue from both ends.
If you are in an unhappy relationship, my heart goes out to you because that can feel like a bottomless trap. If you both want to fix it, keep looking until you find a good therapist (they’re not all good.) This book is excellent; I feel like the first half of the book alone could have solved all my relationship problems if we’d both been able to apply the advice in it. If you don’t both want to fix it, though, please figure out how to move on. I know too many people who remain trapped, often for financial reasons or out of fear of being alone. Figure out what’s holding you back and resolve to free yourself.
If you’re miserable because you’re broke, that’s not a holiday issue. If your problem is low income, the best long-term fix is to get some training for a new career. Talk to a counselor at your local community college to see what’s available and find out if you qualify for any tuition assistance. If not, explore fields you can train in online for a reasonable cost, like TEFL/TESOL certifications, real estate licensing, personal training, etc. If your problem is overspending, get thee to a credit counselor ASAP for some professional help. Just make sure it’s a reputable non-profit, not one that wants to sell you a consolidation loan.
If you hate your job, start training for something new.
If have a list of reasons why you’re unhappy and none of them is in your control, you need some help. We’ve all been there, but this is a sure sign that you have some thought or behavior patterns that aren’t serving you well and you can’t see what they are for some reason. For me, a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, training my thoughts, and journaling was the ticket to finally breaking free. Something else may suit you better, but I urge you to put as much time and resources into this as possible. I’ve never met anyone who wouldn’t benefit from some deep personal work on uncovering their negative thought patterns.
You get the idea.
Posts like this one are tricky because I never want to tell people who are suffering that it’s their own fault. But at the same time, I want to give people hope and help them figure out how to take control of their own lives.
Often we’re too busy getting through each day to make a plan for a joyful future. But you have to remember that you are the captain of your boat, in addition to being the crew. If you don’t take a break from bailing out the boat, and rowing it, to navigate once in a while then no one is steering. Climb up the mast, get a big-picture view. Spend some time sketching out maps and making a plan. Set a course. Then you can go back to the bailing and rowing with a new sense of purpose.
You’re the captain and the crew. Things won’t change until you set change in motion.