Why are the holidays so painful?

when the holidays hurt.jpg

                                  By Nikki Levine, MA, LCPC

Every year right around Thanksgiving, the volume of intense feelings people have gets turned up much higher.  In my practice, I have noticed this trend for many years, and have observed how stressful the holidays actually are for people.  When I say this out loud to people, they appear relieved -- and at the same time, surprised that someone is validating their truth.

The holidays are a challenge because people expect and hope they will be joyous and stress-free.  However, the holidays are not just stressful due to overeating, and spending excessive amounts of money on gifts.  They are stressful because of what we are expecting and hoping for. People who have family hope that they will get together with their family -- and the family they have will finally be the family they want.  Their hope is the holidays will not bring the same painful reminders of how dysfunctional their family actually is.  


Then, of course there are the people who do not have family or who are missing family members. They feel alone and in pain – and long for what is not there.  It’s also so hard not to watch and compare what others are doing, or not doing -- with their holidays, which gets compounded by the the often unrealistic view of others’ lives as portrayed on social media.

So, let me say it again: “The holidays are painful!”   

The holidays trigger people in multiple ways -- and bring up deep-rooted feelings.  The parts of us that are usually doing such a good job protecting us, and helping us function are not able to keep down the very vulnerable parts that we have hidden away the rest of the year.  


When people feel exposed, they are very vulnerable. The best way to cover this hurt up is with anger, frustration and irritation.  It is very simple: people get crabby because they are hurting. It’s an attempt to be less vulnerable. They get angry at others -- but really are more angry at themselves.  This anger is attempting to cover up their pain, and make it go away. Then the pain they are covering up only becomes more painful --and around and around we go. 


There is hope that the holidays can be different. Here are few quick ideas to be aware of so that we do not set ourselves up for disappointment once again.


Setting realistic expectations:

First you must become aware of what your expectations actually are.  


Notice what it is you are “hoping” things will be like. Ask yourself: Is what I am hoping for able to match the reality of what the actual situation is?  Do I hope that this year my mother is not judgmental and critical of my home on Thanksgiving, even though she has been critical my entire life?  


If I am hoping that this year things will be different, then I will be once again let down.  If the hope is for outside people and things to be different, then I am setting myself up for serious disappointment.  


When we set our hopes or expectations to a level that does not match reality, it can be devastating.  This pain is excruciating, and makes life hard to manage.


Assessing what you have control over and what you do not:

The only way we can actually do this is by shifting what we have control over -- which is ourselves.  Our family is clearly not going to change, and the hope that all our financial or eating or whatever other issues are present will go away is unrealistic, if not delusional.  


Recognize what it is you actually have control over and what you do not. This may sound simple, but I often ask my clients to put things into two categories:  first, the things they want to change that they can control and second, the things they want to change that they do not have control over (other people or situations).  


Once these categories are separated, we take the things we cannot control and work toward accepting and letting go of them.  The other things that can be controlled are the ones we focus on changing.  This coping strategy often helps people feel less overwhelmed   


Not comparing and bringing it back to ourselves:

Comparing ourselves to anyone or anything can be seen as a way to measure things for oneself.  However, when we do this, it either makes us feel worse about ourselves or better. Comparing is a setup to feel badly. 


If you find yourself comparing, pay attention to what you are focusing on.  If you realize that you are looking outward to compare yourself, pause.  Once you pause, take a deep breath, and attempt to turn that focus back onto yourself.  Instead of looking outward begin to look inward.  Notice what you have and who you are.  Practice accepting these qualities about yourself.  Remind yourself that you are different from others, and work toward appreciating these qualities.  This takes a lot of awareness of oneself and practice, but it’s worth it.


Lastly, if you do find yourself jealous or envious of others:

If you find that you feel jealous or envious of others, this is another opportunity to pause and listen to yourself.  Instead of getting frustrated and angry that you feel this way, try to be curious about these feelings instead.  Jealousy and envy (like all our feelings) are there for a reason and are trying to help us in some way. Typically jealousy and envy are our body’s way of telling us that we want what someone else has for ourselves. It is a protective measure to help us be the best we can. 


If you can be curious about this, you can learn a lot about what you want for yourself.  Then place these things into the two categories that we discussed earlier.  One category is what you have control over, and the other is what you do not.  Once that is done you look at the areas you do not have control over and work toward acceptance.  The ones that go into the other category that you do have control over are important to listen to.  It is important to have compassion toward yourself as you are curious toward these different things.  Then you can lovingly listen to what it is you would like to change and come up with a realistic plan to do so.


Overall, the holidays can be very challenging.  It is most important to have patience and compassion for yourself and your pain.  If these different tips can be done with self-compassion, you will find that not just the holidays, but life can be a lot less painful.  



























It’s Halloween, and figments of Halloweens past have come to haunt me.  Ok, ok…I’m getting holidays mixed a bit, but the sentence still holds true.

Halloween has been slowly moving into one of the most stressful holidays for moms and their children.  But mostly for moms.

Since I now have teenagers that mostly make their own plans, this holiday no longer provokes the same level of dread, scrambling and anxiety that it once did.  However, in my private practice and in my personal life, I have been hearing story upon story about how some moms, not all, seem to organize group costumes, trick or treating gangs, and pizza parties with a particular intention: to include certain children -- the ones these moms want their kids to be friends with. 

Now, I want to make sure to acknowledge that not ALL group costumes and other Halloween festivities are arranged by moms, or are all planned with less-than-honorable intentions.  There are many examples of kids organizing these events themselves - which I completely support and want to encourage.  I am only addressing these mom-sponsored, and not necessarily kid-approved, group costumes and Halloween celebrations.

I have spent many an October 30th stressing about these socially-engineered events.  Would my daughter have a friend or two to go trick or treating?  Maybe I should host the pizza party so that she would have plans?  Group costume? Wait. She doesn't have a group costume.  Sometimes, we would reach out, only to be told that there were already groups formed….and this was in third grade?  Somehow, some way, we survived and thrived on Halloween.  We created a family tradition - to order Lou Malnati’s pizza for dinner. 

And then I’d collapse onto a heap on the couch…thankful that I could put that to rest for another year.

Can we talk about all of this?  It has a name: social engineering, and it is exclusionary.  

I’m not the only one who is concerned about it: this article captures a recent story done by the Today show about the growing recognition of the exclusion that can happen on Halloween, and what some communities are doing about it.

I don’t remember the push for Halloween and its celebrations like this when I was growing up.  We would go trick or treating with our moms, and meet neighbors and school friends along the way.  This is not what happens today.

Moms, if you think you might be involved in social engineering, I have to say, it’s failing, on every level.  I am not saying that we have to include the entire community to every milestone celebrated, every holiday we observe.  However, when we don’t allow our children to learn to make their own friends we aren't allowing them to practice much needed social skills - initiating friendships, learning how to pick friends, learning what is important in friendships, how to resolve conflicts, learning to trust their own judgment about people and relationships.  These kids feel an underlying responsibility to their mothers to maintain relationships so that their moms can maintain their friendships. 

Further, as moms, we lose out on similar gifts in relationships.  Our friendships stay surface and superficial - using the children’s friendship as the basis of our own relationships.  If the kids weren’t friends, then we won't be either.  So, we force feed the kids to each other so we don’t get abandoned.  What happened to picking our friends because of shared beliefs, values and interests?  And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, when moms social engineer they teach exclusivity to their children.  And this perpetuates a devastating cycle of mean behavior that children inflict upon each other.  I know we see the impact of this and wonder, “How can we let this happen?”

I am not perfect.  I am sure that I have unknowingly left people out in my lifetime.  These are not the crimes I am speaking of.   Nor am I speaking out against Halloween celebrations that kids arrange and facilitate based on their own wants and values.  I am addressing the specific sin of social engineering - controlling social events for kids based on the moms wanting to be friends. 

So, when we talk to our children about staying safe on Halloween, let’s make a commitment to our children and to each other, that we will allow our children to make their own relationships, include the children whose mom may not be part of “the group”, and teach our children that Halloween is a time to enjoy being a child - not a social experiment.


The new school year awaits...


There went summer.  Flew by in an instant.  Camp, sports, late nights and lazy afternoons - they all come to a screeching halt as the school year calendar awaits. 

Every outgoing summer I say that I'm  “ready for the structure of the school year.”  But as that reality approaches, I remember all of the anxiety that the school year ushers in along with the cooler weather. 

As I write this, I feel the pit in my stomach.  How does a working mother of busy teens get the kids to and fro?  The instability of schedules, school work, dinners…….

I think what most plagues me is all the unknown of the year.  What do new teachers bring?  How will the little one do at her bat mitzvah?   How will this year treat my high school aged child?  Will she be able to handle the stress that junior year brings?  What little traumas will happen to each of them at school this year and how can I help?  Can I help? 

The answer is often no.

I am trying to keep “Zen” this school year.  I want to ask myself different questions and hopefully, asking these questions will help to reframe my mindset around school year. 

As an avid reader of “Grown and Flown’ (which is amazing, by the way!!), I am reminded that these years are precious and few. 

So, here are my new questions: 

1.      How will I grow this year?

Instead of being afraid and anxious, how can I grow -- not only as a parent, but as a wife, a friend, a mother and a therapist?  The school year can be a restart for us adults too.  We can learn as much as our children from their little traumas:

  • how to persevere without control
  • how to sit in discomfort
  • how to show compassion
  • how to support and not fix

In other words, all of the things that as parents we HATE to do but all the things we NEED to do.  This year, I vow to continue to practice (without mastering!) these skills.  (And you know what? We don’t need to master these skills - we just need to be good enough.)

2.  How can I help my children grow?

See above.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

3. What are our family’s priorities?

After a bit of a health scare, my husband and I have spent a lot of time reassessing our life and priorities. Our number one priority?  More fun.  We know we need to command family time - it doesn't have to be a ton of time, just once a week.  It doesn't have to be a fancy vacation.  Just a place to play, have fun, and create family inside jokes.  Time set aside to connect without having to teach lessons….just to have some good old fashioned fun….screen free.  That creates memories.

4.  How to embrace my imperfections as well as the imperfections of those I love and care about?

I LOVE Brene Brown.  I PREACH her work.  Do I follow it?  Not as much.  The amount of pressure I put on myself to produce - not even to be perfect - is astounding.  Homemade, healthy dinner on the table (thanks to the health scare - a priority), get everyone to activities with required equipment, on time (even when the schedule changes on the fly), be funny, caring, have the cleanest house, make sure the dog has her prescription food…the list goes on.  

How about we practice self-compassion?  Maybe the dinner is the leftover chicken and veggies from the night before. Maybe little one wears the wrong color jersey to practice. I may forget to sign a waiver that is necessary.   Maybe the older one has to wait 20 minutes for the pick up.  I am good enough.  My kids are good enough.  And that has to be enough to for all of us. 

As I write this, as a mom and a licensed clinical social worker, I became aware of what the pit in my stomach signifies - fear.  Fear of imperfection, failure, falling apart, trauma - my own and those I love.  Let’s make a pact with each other - we are going to practice self compassion without fear.  It seems like that is the antidote to the pit in our stomachs.  Self compassion translates as compassion for others.  And that helps combat the fear. 

Let’s be ok with good enough - with ourselves and with our children.  Let’s have more fun this school year.  Let’s create imperfect memories.


Brooke Fox, LCSW, is a co-owner of Fox, Levine and Associates, Learn more about Brooke here.







Follow up to "Thirteen Reasons Why, and Its Unintended Consequences", by Brooke Fox, LCSW

Dylan Minnette as Clay Jensen and Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker in the Netflix series "Thirteen Reasons Why" ©2017 Netflix

Dylan Minnette as Clay Jensen and Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker in the Netflix series "Thirteen Reasons Why" ©2017 Netflix

The response to my blog about the Netflix series, Thirteen Reasons Why, has been pretty overwhelming.  

Whether you agreed with my views or challenged them, I want to thank you for being part of the dialogue about the content of this series. As many of you have said, having the conversations about the very real issues raised in Thirteen Reasons Why, no matter how painful or difficult, is so important.

The variety of perspectives contained in the comments has been almost universally informative, often supportive, and occasionally, pretty tough to read.

I want to thank the people who said that this series was helpful to them and that it was validating to their struggles in the world. I'm grateful to those who made themselves vulnerable and told their stories, no matter how painful.  I also want to thank my colleagues who weighed in: both those who agreed with me and those who didn't. I appreciated all of the honest feedback from young people who commented, especially those who have experienced struggles similar to Hannah's. Your strength and resilience is powerful and inspiring. I offer my condolences to all who have experienced the heartbreak of suicide. And finally, I want to thank all of you fellow parents for weighing in as we navigate the challenges of modern parenting together.

I'm thankful for the dialogue to which my blog may have, in its own way, contributed. However, in reading many of your comments, it became clear that more than a few of you interpreted some of my words to mean that I "blame the victim". I was not.  Victim-blaming is never ok, so I'll attempt to clarify here.

In my statement,  "I believe we should teach our children to dig deep and find resilience, not point fingers at others and hold them responsible for our feelings and actions",  I did not mean that those who have experienced trauma don't have the right to feel whatever feelings their trauma has caused them: fear and anxiety, anger and rage, sadness and disillusionment, shame and guilt, hopelessness, or grief....all of those feelings are common and understandable responses to trauma that victims have every right to feel.

With my patients who have experienced trauma, no matter what the cause, or how deeply painful the psychological wound may be, I work with them to help them see that we all have the power within us to cope, and even to heal, and that power is often stronger than we might know. Sometimes, we need help from someone, often a therapist, to tap into it.  That healing is a process, and comes with work, and with time. When it happens, the trauma victim is able to release pain, and reclaim their personal power. And in taking that power back, they can decide, strengthened by their newfound resilience, which feelings they aren't ready to let go of, and which ones they are ready to release. In that transition, the person processing the trauma goes from victim to survivor. 

I would have loved to have seen Hannah going through her own process of finding her power again, in the face of all the horrors she experienced.  

As many of you have pointed out, teens face a plethora of painful and traumatic events that span a large spectrum of aggression -- many of them accurately depicted in the series.  The conversation with our teens that I hoped my blog post could help facilitate would be that they are strong and empowered to take on -- and get past -- even the most painful and difficult things. And above all, that they are loved. 

So, thank you for reading, and for talking. I am so happy that the series and my blog have sparked dialogue around the issues of mental health and suicide.  Since this is my life’s work and passion, I crave healthy conversations, especially with our kids, around these issues.  Parents and others with concerns, I encourage you to know the signs of suicide risk.

I continue to recommend that if you choose to allow your child to watch the series (again…no judgment here.  We are all in this together!), please watch it with them.  Process the struggle with mental illness. If your child is struggling, help him or her find find resiliency with the help of a professional -- even if it is buried deep within.

And finally, let them know that you love them, and that suicide is never an option.

If you are in crisis, there's help available. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.

13 Reasons Why, and Its Unintended Consequences, by Brooke Fox, LCSW

Katherine Langford as Hannah in  13 Reasons Why  © 2017 Netflix

Katherine Langford as Hannah in 13 Reasons Why © 2017 Netflix

I am a mom.  And I am a psychotherapist.  I have actually been a psychotherapist longer than I have been a mom.  That’s originally why I picked up the book 13 Reasons Why.  I was intrigued by its premise:  a teen takes her life, then leaves behind a record of who contributed to her decision, and how.  Intrigued is one word I have used -- but if I am being intellectually honest with myself and you, I was put off by the premise.  I was scared.  As a mom of two daughters, 12 and 16, facing this book seemed daunting.  I put it down.  Even therapists have their limits….

I buried this book, along with its premise, for a couple of years.  But like all things that scare us and bring out our vulnerabilities, this stuff comes back.  This time, it came back in the form of a Netflix series that my 12 year old daughter began begging to watch.  “All of my friends are watching it”,  “They are going to spoil the ending for me!” (umm……that’s already been revealed!), and the ever-famous, "You are too overprotective…".

Was I overprotective?  I don’t want to shield my younger daughter from how devastating mental illness can be, especially because it is my life’s work to help people combat these demons.  However, the premise still scared me. 

I made her an offer.  We would watch the series together, and have frank discussions.  This idea was rejected based on the fact that my daughter felt “uncomfortable” talking to her therapist mother about the subject matter.  My answer was that if she couldn't talk about it, she was not allowed to watch it.  Case was closed.

Well, the case was closed for her.  I decided to watch the series.  But this time, as a mental health provider, not as a mother.  Here is what I learned:  13 Reasons Why is irresponsible and disturbing.  I will make this an easy read, and put this into bullet points.

  • Nobody else is responsible for our mental health.  The premise of Thirteen Reasons Why disturbed me.  I understand that the author was attempting to illustrate the point that our actions have an impact on people and at times, that impact can be severe.  Small sins add up, and create a cumulative effect that can sometimes have dire consequences.  I agree with these assertions.  However, as a mental health provider, I work with people to find their power, and their voice.  And yes, I work with teens to do this as well.  We need to own and name our feelings as well as our actions.  I believe we should teach our children to dig deep and find resilience, not point fingers at others - as Hannah did - and hold them responsible for our feelings and actions. 
  • Thirteen Reasons Why is a suicide revenge fantasy.  Hannah received everything in death that she was hoping for: sympathy, deep regret, guilt, and ultimately -- love.  However, what the teen brain cannot process is the fact that Hannah is dead - permanently, and never coming back.  The concept of the permanence of death is not solidified for a teen at this point in development.  This makes suicide seem like an actual option if this can be achieved.
  • Mental health issues -- and the help that's available -- are barely discussed. Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder are very real things that Hannah and other characters in the series struggle with. However, the opportunity to model both the struggle with the issues and the options that are available for addressing them -- whether that means talking with a trusted adult who actually listens, to pursuing the right kind of mental health support -- is missed. Instead, the focus is on suicide as a revenge act.
  • Girls are depicted as disempowered. I read a great article in New York Magazine by Anna Silman that discusses Thirteen Reasons Why, and the culture of misogyny our teenage girls face.  While this could have been a very powerful message in the book, it gets overshadowed by the revenge fantasy that Hannah's suicide provides.  How about addressing the boys' terrible behavior head-on?  How about calling attention to sexual assault and what we can do to change it?  I would have liked to see more outrage, and less disempowerment, from this show.
  • The suicide scene is cause for outrage. I am not for censorship.  I am not Tipper Gore from the 80's.  But this scene was, plain and simple, a tutorial on how to complete the act of ending your life.  It was graphic, It was bloody, and it was unnecessary.  The book ended with a pill overdose, and yet the series ended with razor blades.  Why?  What purpose did changing Hannah's method -- and graphically depicting the suicide -- serve?
  • 13 Reasons Why glamorizes suicide. The series, and the book, go against best practices for addressing suicide responsibly.  ReportingOnSuicide.org created recommendations as a guideline for the media on how to safely report on suicide. Research shows us that how suicide is reported has an impact on the public health of society.  According to ReportingOnSuicide.org:
    • Don’t sensationalize the suicide
    • Don’t talk about the contents of the suicide note, if there is one
    • Don’t describe the suicide method
    • Report suicide as a public health issue
    • Don’t speculate why the person might have done it
    • Don’t quote or interview police or first responders about the causes of suicide
    • Describe the suicide as “died by suicide” or “completed” or “killed                             him/herself” rather than “committed suicide”
    • Don’t glamorize suicide

13 Reasons Why breaks all of these rules.  Violating these guidelines puts our teens at risk.  Romanticizing the act of suicide in a medium that teens hold near and dear to their heart is dangerous and irresponsible. 

These are my two cents as a psychotherapist, not a mother.  My purpose of sharing my point of view was not to judge. The decision on whether or not a parent should let their child watch is a personal one. If you do let your children watch, please heed this advice: watch it with them.  Talk to them.  Assure them that you are here for them, that they are loved and empowered, and that suicide is never an option.


Brooke Fox, LCSW, is a co-owner of Fox, Levine and Associates, Learn more about Brooke here.

Thirteen Reasons Why is a Netflix series (rated TV-MA: Mature Audience Only, "specifically designed to be viewed by adults and therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17") based on the original YA novel of the same name by Jay Asher.