People often ask me why the holidays are frequently difficult for so many people when this time of year is supposed to be a season of giving, of love, of peace, of family celebration. My answer is that, unfortunately, unresolved conflicts, feelings of loss and emotional problems don’t take a vacation just because it’s holiday time on the calendar. Holiday songs and cards touting joy and happiness are too often belied by the real pressures triggered by the holiday season.
In my work as a clinical psychologist, many of my patients are already expressing trepidation about the seasonal suffering associated with the arrival of the holidays. They talk about family conflicts, financial problems or grief over the loss of a loved one. Other patients without family or close relations, or who belong to minority religions or cultures, are beginning to feel lonely and peripheral at the approach of this period of culturally sanctioned festivities and mandated family love.
The holidays are a time of memory — often bringing up golden-hued nostalgic musings of past celebrations with loved ones who may now be gone or traumatic recollections of alcohol-fueled hostilities, financial stress and loneliness. Because we first experience the holidays in the context of our families, our early hopes, disappointments, envy, guilt, joy and pain are also resurrected. These old memories may be conscious and/or unconscious, but they invariably affect us in the present.
Furthermore, there is so much cultural and often familial pressure for a Norman Rockwell picture-perfect celebration that attempting to meet such expectations requires Academy Award-winning performances rather than authentic human interaction. Challenges to ideals of family togetherness are taboo. Though bonds may be strong among individuals, many people are part of families whose members they would never have chosen and with whom they may actually feel they don’t belong. Of course, most families could never discuss these realities because to do so would violate the tacit pretense of familial solidarity.
However, the black sheep, those who know the truth, have a particularly difficult time dealing with holiday celebrations. In order to fit in, they have to pretend to be white sheep, which causes further problems. When the only way to be accepted is by presenting a false self, people experience their authentic, true self to be invisible and unacceptable. No matter how successful their performance, they never feel that they really belong.
For example, a patient of mine, who is a well-respected writer and a recovering compulsive binge eater, anticipates family holidays with abject dread. She knows she will be urged to “just take a little piece of pie” or “eat another helping of grandma’s stuffing.” She feels she must attend family gatherings both because she truly loves her family and also out of guilt. Were she to decline a holiday event, her mother would be “broken-hearted,” and her father and older sister would be sure that she knew she was to blame. She is fully aware that her sister is envious of her publishing triumphs and her svelte appearance and that her working-class parents are intimidated by her academic accomplishments and financial success. Yet each year, she struggles with her longing to be accepted by her family without renouncing her hard-won achievements. She desperately wants to belong without relinquishing herself.
It has been my experience that one of the most effective strategies in helping people at this difficult time of year is to urge them to acknowledge and accept their feelings — whatever they are. I don’t mean that they should succumb to depression, anxiety or grief but that naming the pain helps neutralize its power. There is an old saying, which I often quote to patients: “We become what we resist.” I understand this to mean that the harder we fight against the reality of our emotional, financial or physical experiences, the more power they acquire and the more difficult it becomes to make informed decisions and choices to resolve them. Identifying a problem is the first step in solving it.
It takes courage to tolerate painful feelings about our role in a less-than-accepting family or having lost a loved one who made the holidays joyous or not really liking our family members or not having a family at all. But accepting our experience is an essential part of the process in healing the pain and facing another holiday season with all the emotional vicissitudes that accompany it.
Clinical psychologist Margot Duxler, Ph.D., maintains offices in Grass Valley and San Francisco.