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