As you know, the holidays can easily push all your emotional buttons; and, that’s for people whose lives are fairly balanced. If you have experienced a recent death, divorce, or move, your reactions may be more heightened. All that stress can make you extra sensitive to the wrong comment. While you can’t control what people say, you can remind yourself it is all about them, not you. Unconsciously, they suggest what they think would be good for them if they were in your situation. That’s why the best thing to say to someone who is suffering is that you are sorry they’re going through this difficult period, and things will change. At least, those comments are irrefutable.
Expectations have everything to do with how you feel in any situation. The holidays are no different. Images of Norman Rockwell paintings, with smiling faces around a festive table, can leave you feeling critical of what the holiday is for you now. That might be self-criticism, and second-guessing decisions that brought you to a place of loneliness, insecurity, and grief. Allow yourself emotional space to be in this between time, straddling what was and what will be. Understand how whatever is happening now, in this holiday, is not the template for all your future holidays. Take a page from AA, and break up the day into small parts, taking it one minute at a time.
While you may be tempted to think your lack of enthusiasm for celebration is part of a trend, resist that impulse and remind yourself: It’s only one day. Unpleasant as it may be, it is part of moving forward. Birth is always messy, painful, and ultimately ecstatic. Telling yourself your current feelings are temporary broadens your perspective and helps you stop awfulizing about your situation. It may be far from your ideal, but is it really 100% bad? This might be a good time to make a list of everything you are happy with in your life. Even a P.O.W. can be appreciative for a ray of light, a morsel of food, or a bird’s song, so focus on what is going well for you and what you can enjoy.
If you find yourself painting a rosy picture of past holidays, reach back and remember how things really were. If you need a reality check, try reading some of David Sedaris’ humorous reminiscences. No one has a perfect anything, and that includes their celebrations. If you think you know a family that does, you simply don’t know them well enough. Painting an unrealistically wonderful portrait of other people’s lives is unhelpful, as it leaves you feeling bereft, or singled out for misery.
Watch out for other negative thoughts, like comparing a perfectly fine holiday now to one you’ve embellished over the years as heavenly because you cultivated amnesia for past unpleasant events. This is a good time to take a page from Jean Vanier’s book and love reality. (Just for the record, he’s been working on that for 40 years with varying degrees of success, but it’s still a useful concept.)
No one knows the future, and it only upsets you to assume the worst. Make a conscious choice to assume the best; and, if that seems like climbing an emotional Mount Everest, let yourself feel what you’re feeling. It will pass. I promise.
As you release your old notions of how life should be you make room for how it can be. Perhaps you were lucky enough to have had some wonderful holiday times. Why not remember how you helped create them? By clinging to the past, and an image of what you think your life should be now, you resist new experiences you might like even more.
As a creature of habit, aversion to the unknown comes naturally, and can protect you; but, it may also slow your evolution to the person you are becoming. It’s natural to feel some anxiety about that, since you don’t know how that person will be. You might shift some values (see Challenge Your Values), like things you never enjoyed before, gravitate towards different people—anything is possible, and that can be scary. We like the familiar. As my mother puts it: “I hate change, even when it’s for the better.”
If you have a holiday that feels off or unsatisfying, remind yourself you were used to things being a certain way for a long time. That doesn’t mean it’s the best way for you now. Whenever you make a change, or one is foisted on you, it discombobulates your entire system. That temporary awkwardness and dissatisfaction you feel is just that: temporary. It won’t last. Another holiday will come, and, with it, the potential for something greater than you can imagine now.
To change your brain chemistry right this minute, you may want to fantasize about what that future holiday might be like. Use all five senses (touch, smell, sight, hearing, and taste) to paint a picture of your ideal celebration. Don’t relive one from the past, create a new paradigm. Go with your gut: it can be conservative or outrageous, it’s your fantasy.
If you think your former holidays were idyllic, great! That means you have created what you want in the past and you can create your new vision in the future. The fact that it hasn’t happened yet just means you need more time to heal. Take all the time you need. At some point you will be ready. In the meantime, practice viewing each unsatisfying situation as providing valuable data on what you don’t want. Eventually, your new vision will be so strong it will become your reality. Patience with yourself, and the sometimes agonizingly slow process of change, will make the journey easier.
Copyright Nicole S., Urdang
How to Deal With Holidays After a Divorce, Death, or Move November 28, 2009
Grief: Going From Pain To Peace November 16, 2009
Your suffering is your benefit.
All loss engenders pain. Whether it is from death, divorce, an empty nest, estrangement, or other life shattering event. Even less obvious losses, like the loss of autonomy after marriage, the loss of familiar co-workers when taking a new job, the loss of physical comfort when giving birth, or the loss of youth as you age result in psychic pain. Loss is an integral part of life. You can’t avoid it. Luckily, there are many ways to handle its fallout. (See Losing Friends, Loss & Liberation, and Phantom Marriage Syndrome.)
As always, the first thing is to feel your feelings. Even if every cell in your body seems as if it’s about to explode, allow yourself to experience it all. Breathe into it. Give yourself the opportunity to open to awareness. By trying to stem the emotional tide you will only increase your pain and exhaust yourself in the process. Remember, grief masquerades as sadness, anger, depression, guilt, anxiety, numbness, shock, worthlessness, etc. So, please refrain from pathologizing your feelings into an illness. You are not sick, you are grief-stricken. It’s a normal part of life that no one escapes. Your emotions will wax and wane. Just when you think the pain is gone for good it will grab you and rapaciously take another bite. Don’t despair. You are healing even in the midst of misery.
Allowing your feelings naturally morphs into accepting them, though this is also a roller coaster ride. One minute you think you have accepted what life has given you, and the next you’re back to ranting and railing against it. It’s all OK. You probably won’t like what you’re feeling, but you can make it safe by consciously choosing to view it as a natural part of life. In time, you will adjust to your new state. It may be as a single person, an empty-nester, a parentless adult, or someone with a disability. Whatever the situation, you will eventually find ways to embrace and enjoy it.
We all evolve. It’s our biological destiny. If you choose to see grief as an avenue to personal growth, you can catalyze your pain into compassion for everyone. The Dalai Lama once said: “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others.” But first, you need to attend to yourself. You will know when your reserves are built up enough to give again.
In the meantime, practice loving kindness meditation.
Sit comfortably, or lie down.
Say the following to yourself:
May I be peaceful, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering.
Next, think of the people you love and wish them peace, happiness, and freedom from suffering.
Now, choose someone with whom you have difficulty and wish them peace, happiness, and freedom from suffering.
Think of a stranger you saw on the street, or in the market, and wish them peace, happiness, and freedom from suffering.
Lastly, wish all creatures peace, happiness and freedom from suffering.
This practice can be relatively short, or you can linger on each word and let it sink in. Either way, it reminds you to put your own well-being first and to wish everyone goodness, even those with whom you have difficulty.
In time, your compassion for yourself and others will grow. You will relate to people differently, whether it’s the clerk at the market or your best friend, because your grief has sensitized you, and opened your heart to everyone’s suffering.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang