Cranky During the Holidays? Battling Unrealistic Expectations? How to Get Through the Holidays in One Piece, with Tips from Kaethe Weingarten
[Editor’s note: Happy Holidays! For those of us who may struggle during this holiday season, Kaethe Weingarten, PhD, Founder and Director of Witness to Witness, has some ideas to help you through. Witness to Witness has a very special end-of-year match campaign, where every dollar you donate to W2W will be doubled. Make a big impact: support clinicians and frontline workers who have experienced trauma on the job, and donate to Witness to Witness.]
Most of us have grown up with the idea that holidays are supposed to be joyous occasions and yet for many people that has not always been the case. And that was before COVID-19 changed so many aspects of daily life and celebrations. The last two years have taken a toll on the mental health of about 40% of US adults and almost as many children. A person feeling anxious or depressed, or struggling with other mental health concerns might be viewed by family or friends as lacking in holiday spirit, being a bit "off." What will it be like to celebrate the holidays when so many of us may be -- let's be honest -- acting a bit crankier than usual?
Well, it may be as challenging as last holiday’s season. Part of what often makes the holidays difficult is that even if you have realistic expectations, others you love may not. And you know what those expectations are! Wanting everyone to have a good time, wanting everyone to be content with their gifts – if you give gifts at the holiday – and wanting the food to be delicious all put pressure on the adults on whom the holiday preparations fall. For many adults, the financial losses of the pandemic are also going to throw a wrench into festivities.
So what kind of “planning” may make the holidays happier? I think using our imaginations as part of the planning process has something to offer. What if we spent some time asking ourselves some fundamental, but hypothetical, questions? Here are some of mine and once you get the drift of these questions, you may have others.
- What is the one element in a holiday celebration that makes it special for you? Your answer doesn’t have to be something you have actually experienced. It can be something you have only imagined. Let’s call this element A.
- If you could create the best holiday ever with your favorite people present – alive or dead – who would you be spending time with? What was special about that person? What quality of theirs did you love to be around? Let’s call this element B.
- What holiday tradition do you most love? It can be one you’ve experienced, one you’ve heard about, one you’ve seen in film or on TV or one you’ve read about. What do you like about it? Let’s call this element C.
- What is your favorite holiday food? Or your favorite food, period? Let’s call this element D.
Now, let’s see if we can put those four pieces together. You will be spending time with B, eating D, savoring A and C. You may find that imagining this wonderful day leading up to the holidays makes the actual holiday a little less significant because you have already been having a lovely time. That is, it may set up the whole season a bit differently than usual. In our imaginations, money doesn’t have to matter, moods aren’t going to interfere with our pleasure, and conflict is just not going to happen.
For those of you for whom this kind of imagination is not easy or not working, I also have some tips to assist with the holidays.
- There is no law that says you have to be happy during the holidays. You can feel what you feel and still have holidays. You can ignore the people around you who are giving you the fisheye for not being cheerful. You are you and they are they.
- Sometimes people use alcohol or substances to blunt their feelings during the holidays. Even over-eating can be a way to cope with holiday stress. While this may provide short-term relief, if you are anxious or depressed, it will actually make things harder once the effect wears off. If possible, find someone to share your feelings with. If you are truly isolated and there is no one to talk to in person or by phone, create an imaginary conversation or write your feelings in a journal. You do not have to be alone.
- Many of us will be mourning dear ones who died, either during the pandemic or prior to it. The holidays are often the days we most miss loved ones. Sometimes the deceased is the person whom we most associate with a holiday tradition that is now missing or not the same. Sometimes honoring the person’s significance and expressing gratitude for what they provided – out loud or just in our minds – can be a way of bringing them present in a way that is comforting.
- For some people, the holidays are lonely times. Other people are getting together but we are not. For others, the holidays bring so many social demands it is overwhelming. For the former, remember that life changes. You don’t know what companionship may happen in the new year. If you are over the top, get comfortable saying “no.” You don’t have to wait for a meltdown to set a limit either!
- If you are getting pressure to celebrate the holidays a particular way and it isn’t what you want, this is also a good time to be clear about what you do and do not intend to provide and what you can and cannot offer. It’s better to let people know up front and in advance than to have people disappointed upon arrival.
- In families where gift giving happens, you can save yourself heartache and trouble by realistically setting a budget and sticking to it. No more needs to be said here.
- Finally, if you are in charge of the holidays, let others help! Be as specific as possible about what you would like help with and give people plenty of notice in advance.
With these imaginary holidays and following these tips, my hope is that you will have a better holiday season than you thought you might. And remember, January will come!
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