It’s the most wonderful time of the year… So the song says. I’ve heard it at least a dozen times since Thanksgiving in shopping malls, the pharmacy, and on the radio while driving around. The holiday decorations, music, and festivities of the season surround us. Yet, for many, the holidays are far from wonderful or happy. Many of us had a difficult year, whether the reason was financial, family oriented, or some other challenge that prevents us from easily transitioning into the joyful spirit of celebration. We may have struggled with chronic illness or disability, unemployment, the loss of a loved one, or another tragedy. Or, perhaps, we just don’t feel like being festive. Whatever the reason we lack holiday spirit, it can feel forced upon us. I hope to bring you good tidings by letting you know that there are ways to get through the holiday season with joy, or at least some peace of mind.
Don’t force yourself. You don’t have to enjoy the holidays in the same ways that others do. If you don’t feel up to buying personal gifts for everyone, think about what you do feel comfortable doing. Suggest a gift exchange, so you only need to buy a gift for one person from the group or family. If you don’t want to completely remove yourself from the festivities, choose events where you feel most comfortable. Attend parties for shorter periods of time so that you may enjoy yourself briefly and then excuse yourself before it becomes overwhelming. There are times when stretching yourself outside your comfort zone can be healthy and helpful. The holidays are often not these times, as the expectations that you experience or perceive may give you greater stress than is necessary. Let others know that you are struggling, even if you don’t want to go into details. Most people can be very compassionate if you give them the opportunity.
Figure out what you enjoy about the holidays. If nothing strikes you, perhaps you can explore. Do you enjoy the music? Do you enjoy attending religious services? Or do you enjoy quiet evenings at home sipping hot chocolate? There are simple pleasures you can find that do not involve the high energy festivities that our culture emphasizes. You can enjoy the holidays your way.
The expectations that our friends and families have of us during the holidays can feel overwhelming. Think about what you can manage, and talk with family members or loved ones ahead of time. Many people are unable to empathize with pain or grief. However, communicating our thoughts and feelings, regardless of the response, can still be a proactive step in taking good care of ourselves. Attending smaller family events or not staying as long can be an option. Keeping conversations over holiday meals to topics that do not engage in conflict is a good tactic for managing difficult relationships and personality clashes. Loneliness can be a major factor affecting millions of people during the holidays. Many people spend the holidays alone while watching others enjoy themselves with family and friends. If you’re going to be alone this holiday season, think about volunteering at a shelter or some place where other people would welcome your presence. People who volunteer during the holidays report greater satisfaction, not only in the act of giving time to others, but in the companionship and the gratitude they receive. If volunteering is too much for where you are, perhaps you can find others in your neighborhood or community who are not with family and have a small meal together or just gather for hot chocolate and conversation. Our world has become increasingly more isolated in recent years for many reasons, so we must proactively seek friendships and community. Sometimes this is extremely anxiety provoking, but you can start small with one or two people to see where it leads. Ultimately, people who find companionship in even the smallest of circles draw great joy from it and find that it can be a game changer over an otherwise dull and dreary holiday season.
Sometimes before we can enjoy others genuinely, we must appreciate time on our own: developing solitude is an important part of developing community. Take time out of your busy holiday schedule to enjoy moments of peaceful reflection. If you are alone, self reflection can be a great way to set goals for the coming year and to think about what you would like to be different in your life. Reading, meditating, praying, going for walks, and writing in a journal can be great ways to engage in much-needed introspection. I call it taking a break from every day life. This does not mean that you would exclude yourself from activities that you may enjoy or totally isolate. It simply means that you take time to be with your self in a meaningful way to rest, reflect, and think about how your future can unfold.
Gratitude is an important way to both reflect on our blessings and achieve personal growth. Being intentional about showing gratitude can make a huge difference in the way that our brains process the events of our lives. Think back on the previous year. Can you identify events or experiences that you appreciate? Are there people who you would like to thank or who you were glad to have in your life? Numerous studies have shown that demonstrating gratitude lifts our spirits almost instantly. When we recognize that there is good in our lives, despite the pain, struggles, and challenges, our brain develops a new perspective that improves our self awareness and contextualizes our circumstances within a bigger picture.
Regardless of what’s troubling you this season, I hope these strategies allow you to find peace and joy during the coming holidays and to look forward to a new year.