Noeticus Counseling Center and Training Institute®
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Innovative Approaches to Counseling and Change

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 Surviving the Holidays
Not-So-Happy Holidays

Holidays and other special occasions are times that typically are supposed to bring excitement and joy into our lives. They are times when our families and friends come together to remember their histories, renew the bonds that unite them, and experience new things together that will become tomorrow's memories. 

These times are not always happy times, however, especially when our experiences with family and friends might be tainted with painful memories, dysfunctional dynamics, or even abuse, neglect, and/or secrecy.

"The more I consult my feelings during the day, tune in to myself to see if what I am doing is what I want to be doing, the less I feel at the end of the day that I have been wasting my time."

- Hugh Prather

Managing Holidays and Special Occasions 

Holidays and other special occasions can be challenging times for many of us because they frequently bring awkward situations, unfinished business, and sometimes painful memories and experiences to the foreground. They can also force us into difficult situations where we have to choose between isolating ourselves from activities where there might be people or circumstances we are not ready to face or ignoring our feelings and participating in these activities even though they may be quite hard and even triggering.

Understanding why holidays and other special occasions might be hard for some of us is an important first step in making effective decisions about how to respond to these events when they arise. To begin with, it is important to recognize that holidays and other special occasions can be difficult for people in general. This is because most people carry some image of what these special occasions are supposed to look like and then are disappointed by the actual experience of what does happen. The image of what is supposed to happen on these occasions is typically one that has been formed by things we have seen in the media, such as greeting cards, catalogs, magazines, and films. Of course comparing our experience to ones that are designed by the media to sell products is a comparison that is bound to leave us feeling insecure and inadequate.

In looking at holidays and other special occasions it can be helpful to first determine whether what we are feeling is related to our specific history or whether it is related to a more general feeling of disappointment about not having some type of ideal that is more of a fantasy than a reality. Of course the two things can be combined, and often are, and this can certainly make things more complicated. It can still be useful though to separate out some of our feelings so that we can more easily work with them.

The specific elements that can make our holiday experiences difficult can be quite varied. A necessary first step is to be aware of the discomfort or distress around these events when they come up. Sometimes the distress or discomfort sneaks up on us days or even weeks before the actual event and can be a significant factor in shaping our mood and behavior unconsciously if we are not paying attention. Once we are aware of the situation we can begin doing some detective work to figure out if we are dealing with past reactivity that is showing up in the present (in other words a trigger) or if we are dealing with a current danger that needs to be addressed clearly and deliberately. Once we figure out what we are dealing with we can begin to explore what our options are in terms of the healthiest course of action to take with regard to our participation in these special occasions.

Other common issues that we may struggle with when faced with the possibility of participating in holidays or other special occasions include undesired exposure to alcohol or drugs, having to deal with differences in values regarding religion and politics, uncertainty about disclosure to family members about certain parts of our lives, and perhaps struggling with the question as to whether to confront an offender or not. Of course there are no standard solutions that fit for all of us. We need to be able to find answers that work for us. We can do this by being aware of the different elements of the situation that cause our distress, determine whether our distress is from the past or present through detective work, and then start making healthy choices about how to skillfully address these issue while taking care of ourselves.

Some Useful Suggestions and Tips
For those who find holidays and other special occasions stressful here are a few ideas to help you manage them better:
  • Participate only in those activities you really enjoy.
  • S-l-o-w down. The thing most people want for holidays and special occasions is “relaxed time with their family and/or friends.” “Hectic” is a choice – if you don’t want a hectic holiday and special occasion, make changes. Consider how setting different boundaries with your time might support this.
  • Accept your own limitations and preferences and don’t be afraid to let others know what they are. If you can’t be three places at once, say so!
  • Relax your "standards.” Leave the perfect holiday homes, tables, parties, clothes, and families to the magazines.
  • Remember, healthy living is important to both good mental and good physical well being. Balance good nutrition with the pies, cakes, and candies of holidays and special occasions. Limit the alcohol intake.
  • Exercise can relieve stress and depression. Whenever possible, WALK!
  • Smile! Laugh! Relish the fun things in life. If you hear a good joke, share it. If you see a “feel good” movie, let others know about it.
  • Don’t correct or criticize. Holidays and special occasions are about kindness and love, not about perfection, advice, or achievements.
  • Roll with the punches. Be flexible and don’t let the “unexpected” throw you.
  • Take some time alone. Use it to read a good book, take a nap, or just watch the sunset. You might just find out what a really great person you are.