holiday stress

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.