If you take a look at social media, it seems like everyone is having a festive season straight out of a movie or television show. They’re going to parties, baking cookies, buying the perfect gift for everyone, and decorating everything around them to look like a holiday winter wonderland. Even their ugly Christmas sweater is adorable.
You certainly wouldn’t know by these Instagram-worthy moments that about half of people say they dread the holidays. They miss their loved ones, feel financial pressure, and experience an overwhelming sense of expectations that make the holidays less enjoyable. And, for about 65% of people with a mental health disorder, the holidays are an even more challenging time.
Coping with negative emotions during the holidays was the subject of a recent All Counseling webinar, When the Holidays Aren’t Happy Times. Allison Hauser, MA, RMHCI, joined us to provide professional insight on the topic.
Where Does It Begin?
Feelings of dread, sadness, depression, anxiety, or stress are common during the holidays, but Allison said it doesn’t necessarily start there. While the holidays may seem to bring these feelings to the forefront, the feelings usually aren’t about the festive season itself.
“We need to walk it back. What’s going on in this time, in this season? What’s uniquely coming up for you — your life, your situation, your personality — and this time in particular?”
To take this step back, Allison said it’s important to consider the thoughts, dreams, feelings, emotions and memories that come up about this time. For example, perhaps you feel negatively around the holidays because you spend more time with your family during this season, and your mother is critical of you, commenting on your appearance or lack of a romantic partner. It’s not the holidays that are causing the negative feelings, it’s that relationship and your mother’s criticism.
Triggers look different for everyone, but Allison said there are some common themes of experiences that cause people stress during this season. They include:
- Pressures from family members or societal norms
- Differing values and opinions
- Seeking approval from family members
- Traumatic or negative early childhood experiences
“The holidays won’t be the first time this comes around, but the holidays have a great way of showing us patterns,” Allison said. “There are unique situations, but we’re always the same person throughout the whole year.”
Challenging Feelings During the Holidays
It may be easy to feel sad, lonely, depressed or anxious when it seems like everyone else’s life is a holiday Hallmark movie. You may wonder why you feel this way when the people around you seem so festive.
The idea that it’s wrong to feel certain emotions during the holiday season is inaccurate, Allison said. There’s nothing “wrong with you” if you’re not feeling joy and celebration.
“These feelings are probably amplified during this time of year, but it’s not the only time it shows up. So, it’s another place to unlock. Has this happened throughout your life?”
Allison encourages you to consider your feelings and why you’re having them instead of judging yourself because of them.
Once you understand where your feelings originate, if you still don’t want to have or accept them, you can find a pathway that will help you live differently.
“If we could learn to accept all parts of ourselves, including all of our feelings, maybe there’s a way to be not just OK with it, but be happy about feeling and being whole,” she said. “And let’s get curious about what’s getting in the way of us taking care of ourselves.”
Part of taking care of yourself means understanding and embracing your emotions, then recognizing the choices you are empowered to make. For example, choosing to attend a family dinner or whether to speak up when someone at a holiday party makes an inappropriate comment.
“Recognizing choice comes from recognizing our feelings,” Allison said.
Embracing the Emotions
The holidays aren’t happy times for many people, and they aren’t consistently thrilling, even for people who enjoy the season. Simply put: no one is happy all the time.
“It’s normal not to feel happy at any time — any time of day, any time of week, any season,” Allison said. “It would actually be strange if we were happy all the time. I mean, this is a human experience, and I think a lot of what psychotherapy can offer is getting comfortable with experiencing being human.”
The idea that we should be happy nonstop, especially during the holidays, comes from learned experience, usually from upbringing, societal expectations or both.
“It must have served someone at some point,” Allison said. “There was a drive to avoid the feeling of not being happy for some reason. Now it’s everywhere as a hidden message.”
The way to get out of this cycle is to embrace your emotions. Feel your feelings. Understand where they come from. Then decide if and how you want to alter your behaviors as a result of what you learned.
If you’re experiencing challenges this holiday season or just want to learn to process and better understand your emotions, All Counseling is here to connect you with a therapist. Search our therapist directory to find someone who fits your unique needs.
Watch the entire webinar and hear directly from Allison Hauser.