My experience with the holidays as an adult have always been a bit conflicting.
I usually spend at least a month counting down the days to a break from work, some much needed time with my family and a chance to immerse myself in a season colored with cheerfulness and positivity.
As I plow through October and November, I use the holidays as a metaphorical finish line to cheerlead myself through the fall: “In just a few more weeks, I’ll feel joyful and merry,” “I’ll finally get to relax when I get to Christmas break” and the classic, “This year will be better than ever.”
The hard truth is that the holidays have never provided clear-cut joy for me. I often feel pressured to be “on” at events with extended family. I still have moments of profound sadness that my parents no longer celebrate together. I become cranky when I go a few days without a moment to myself.
The end of the holiday season often finds me more tired and tense, and beating myself up for not enjoying myself as much as I should have.
It’s fair to say that it has become part of our collective understanding that a case of the blues during the holidays is normal. When friends, family or clients express to me that they aren’t feeling the spirit of the season, I want so badly for them to understand how natural it is and that these feelings will remit if they are ridden out with patience and kindness. Yet, when it comes to myself, I tend to remain self-conscious and unsettled that I am not feeling the way I am “supposed” to be feeling.
It’s during this time of year that I tend to be most vulnerable to the nasty and insidious “should” thoughts: “All of my family is around me; I shouldn’t feel so lonely,” “I have so much to be grateful for; I should feel happier,” “I’ve been waiting for this week all year; I should be more excited that it’s here now.”
Even though I’m familiar with all of the reasons why the holiday season comes with a higher degree of organic stress, every year I find myself chasing the myth of abundant joy and merriness. When my emotions don’t cooperate, I tend to look in the mirror and blame myself.
This year, I’m going to make an effort to do things differently. My intention is to approach the holiday season with mindfulness, acceptance and, most of all, self-compassion. Buddha tells us, “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” I wonder how this season would feel different if I accepted my thoughts and emotions unconditionally and didn’t judge myself for feeling something natural.
There’s a 100 percent chance that self-judgment and harsh self-talk will make us feel worse. Practicing self-compassion with the most challenging emotions is more likely to weaken their intensity and help them diminish sooner.
Below are four paths to self-compassion that I’m committing to trying during a season that tends to leave me feeling off and a little lost. These strategies come from what I would suggest to a struggling friend or client, but have much difficulty practicing with myself.
This is the paradox of self-compassion.
1) The path of permission.
Each time I notice myself comparing how I feel to how I think I should be feeling, I’m going to give myself permission to take a break. Engaging with the should’s is an exercise in futility. If I could have magically changed these emotions or turned them off, I probably would have taken the earliest opportunity to do so.
Rather than berating myself for feeling something, I’m going to own what’s happening. With what was once, “I shouldn’t be feeling so irritated right now,” I’m going to try “I’m feeling irritated. Maybe I need some alone time.”
2) The path of intention.
Sometimes it feels like the holidays go by in a blur, and I’m left feeling let down after weeks of so much build up. At the beginning of each day, I’m going to try to identify what moment I want to be most present for. Maybe I want to make sure I connect with my husband’s grandmother during Thanksgiving dinner. Or, I will make an effort to admire the beauty of twinkling lights on Christmas trees through windows of homes when I’m stuck in traffic.
Finding meaning in small moments will make the season feel more rich and personal to me.
3) The path of kindness.
Rather than jumping right to the assumption that I’m defective for feeling stressed or sad, I might instead ask myself, “If I accepted myself unconditionally, what would I say to myself right now?” Or, “If I was truly listening to my deepest needs right now, what would I ask for?” Another approach is to shift self-talk to the manner you would speak to a young child who has made a mistake.
While these tactics can end up feeling really unnatural or deliberate, forcing myself to think of something more compassionate ends up highlighting how harshly I am speaking to myself.
4) The path of curiosity.
There is nothing more unsettling than feeling alone or isolated when I’m surrounded by other people. Or, sometimes I lash out at the ones I love for no apparent reason and without any understanding why. Typically, when I notice I’m feeling an emotion that doesn’t match the external environment, I respond with judgment and shut it down. My reaction to these experiences is typically, “What’s wrong with you? Stop it.”
Rather than resorting to criticism or self-blame, I am going to try to approach these moments with curiosity. All emotions have a purpose and the potential to provide important information about our internal world. Asking myself what this emotion might really be about may actually help me get the support I need. If I’m feeling sad or crabby, maybe I need some reassurance, a hug or, most likely, a nap.
Author: Giulia Suro, Ph.D.
Editor: Toby Israel