Ways to Manage the Ghosts of the Past through the Holidays

Holidays are a difficult time for many of us. There’s more pressure than ever before to be “happy” in this season. We hear phrases like “Holiday Spirit” or a “Season of Gratitude,” which can leave many with the desire to hide until Spring. And while the intention is to celebrate how this time of year can bring spiritual or relational connection, it can also be a season of loss when the ghosts of the past creep in on you, increasing that desire to numb or hide out.

This time of year can increase the pressure of more – spending, giving, and time – all to appear “happy” from November to early January. There is a drop-off effect that often happens in January or February due to the fallout from the stress of the holidays. According to a recent Psychology Today article, 45 percent of North Americans dread the holiday season (Williams, 2010). An increase in depressive moods is often brought on by the dreariness of the winter weather, but it can also be because of the angst of the existential fallout that holidays can bring.  The holidays can force us to face the intensity of emotions we have not-so-neatly packed away. January begins with celebration and continuation of the holiday season with its renewed New Year’s hope. But as the month progresses, our steam runs out. The reactive behaviors of “getting your life together” do not work as well after all the excess and denial in the holiday season.

This season can illuminate the loss of hopes and dreams and is riddled with unmet expectations for all stages of development. Here are possible examples for stages of development and struggle in the holiday season: disappointments for the single adult surface based on how they view success – being passed over for that big job, buying that big home, or not having someone to share this time with. Couples struggling with starting a family can feel the loss of not having a child to celebrate with, or difficulties of infertility efforts. Parents can feel the shame of financial struggles, lack of connection as a couple, or pressure to give enough or be what other members of the family want them to be. Children can also feel the pressure to behave and perform, especially coupled with late nights and holiday programs. Parents with adult children out of the house can struggle to face the lack of connection or dissatisfaction with the relationship quality with themselves, their partner, or their children. The elderly can face loneliness by missing those they have lost or feeling like they have been forgotten by those they hold dear.

So how do we look within a season that tempts us to look around and compare?

Here are some ways you can manage the holiday pressure!

Curiosity – what feelings and behaviors are more prevalent for you this year versus previous years?  Mindfulness is the practice of being aware in an effort to notice what is happening within us, giving us more choice in the present moment. The key to mindfulness is observing and not judging. Here are questions to help you get started practicing mindfulness:

What behaviors do you notice happening more than usual at this time of year? For example, you might be buying more impulsively, comparing more, experiencing a breakdown of routine – exercise, care with meals, and sleep.  

What wishes or desires do you long for more than usual? Perhaps you’re hoping for a break, a family that is different, or wanting to ignore the season altogether.

What do you notice about the way you treat those close to you? Are you avoiding time with them, or are you irritable and more easily frustrated, fearful of their expectations?

Being curious about the feelings connected to your behaviors can help you unravel the core beliefs around this time of year.

Priorities – what are the values this time of year holds for you? Are there specific morals, values, or a way of being that you want to keep this time of year? It helps to know that spending time at home one evening versus going to a party can help manage your stress. It might help to create and write out a list of the priorities for this holiday season, putting them in a prominent place as a reminder. Sometimes, when working with someone to explore their wants and desires, I find it is easier for them to list what they definitely do not want. It is like when you ask someone what they want to eat and they can tell you they are not feeling Italian food since they just had that for lunch. Maybe your list says, “No parties every night of the week.” Explore how you feel when you have parties every night –“Tired, stressed, low on funds.” With a clear list of what you do not want, work backward to determine what your priorities or values actually are.

Boundaries – what is okay and what is not okay for you? Boundaries is a term used often, but few understand what it means. To understand boundaries, start by imagining a large fence. It is a physical boundary that allows things in and out, and you are the key holder to that fence’s lock, letting in what is good for you and keeping out the things that negatively affect your land. It’s hard to imagine saying “no” especially to family or friends, but with not having a “no,” it is hard to say “yes” to what you do want. Enforcing boundaries is a guiding tool to help manage your mood and sanity during the holidays.

Rumbling with Emotionswhat feeling would you rather not feel during this time? Researcher and author Brené Brown states in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, “We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” If you numb the hard emotions during this time of year, it can affect your ability to enjoy the positive emotions this time of year might hold for you. Often, I find when working with others in therapy that naming emotions is difficult, especially if you are out of practice or have ignored them for a while. Some ways to help you try to name the emotions you are trying not to feel is to start writing. Being creative or expressive, engaging your right brain and left can help. Start by drawing what it feels like, then try to name it to help you explore what is happening inside. Once named, sharing the emotion is essential. Know and acknowledge that is okay to “feel all the feels.”

Getting curious, exploring our priorities, setting our boundaries, and rumbling with our emotions can help during this busy and sometimes painful season. It is also essential to intentionally slow down and make space for the things we usually deny during this season – choosing not to distract or medicate our feelings with something sweet, something shiny, or something fun. It’s important to explore what is driving us this season and the things we notice so that when January shows up, we are not crawling through the weeks.

If you want to explore more of the things that impact you in the holiday season, therapy is a good option to find support and look deeper at the underlying emotions affecting your behaviors.

What if we didn’t see the holidays as a last chance to detach before we start over in the New Year? What if the holidays didn’t have to be a source of discouragement, stress, or numbing out for you? What if you could actually grow emotionally, mentally, and physically through the holidays?

This is what the therapeutic process is all about and it can be pivotal in managing the ghosts of the past.

You do not have to wait till the New Year to pursue a “new” you… your first step towards growth and self-awareness can start now.

If you are interested in working together during this season, check out my contact information.

Let’s look at managing the ghosts of the past together this holiday season.

Williams, R. (2010). Why people get depressed at Christmas: Christmas season brings depression for some. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201011/why-people-get-depressed-christmas