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‘Tis the Season

Kari Swanson

It is the season for festive decorations. It is the season for Christmas cookies. It is the season for gift shopping and wrapping and giving. It is the season for holiday gatherings. It is the season for anxiety. It is the season for depression. It is the season for grief. It is the season for guilt.

If you experience any of these last four feelings due to any of the first four events you understand what I mean. If you don’t, you are fortunate. The holiday season from before Thanksgiving to after New Year’s Day can be very difficult for some people. There can be sadness due to having the holidays for the first time without a loved one or again without a loved one. There can be anxiety over getting the “right” gift for someone that chastised you last year for the gift you chose to give. There can be guilt over not wanting to have your in-laws over or not wanting to go to your family’s get together.

These are real feelings and if you feel them you know how real they can be. Once the feeling starts then start the beating up of yourself for experiencing these feelings in the first place. STOP! Allow yourself to feel what you feel. Then step back and take action on what you are going to do to make the season bearable and tolerable and enjoyable for you. Notice I said you. I did not say others. I did not say your significant other. I did not say your kids. I did not say your family or his family. I said YOU. If you take care of you then all those other people will be taken care of in the end. However, the holiday season is rarely about “you” but all about others. This is why it is difficult for people to set boundaries with difficult family members or to say no to the gathering that makes them uncomfortable.

The first step in all of this as in any situation is recognition and awareness. Pay attention to your emotions, your thoughts, and your feelings. Next, identify what or who is increasing these emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Finally, communicate this to the people that care about you. There is a saying that goes “the people that matter won’t mind and the people that mind don’t matter”. The people that care about you are going to want you to take care of yourself and to set boundaries that are right for you. They may be disappointed or even may not really understand because they don’t experience what you experience, however, because of their love and respect for you they will ultimately support what is best for you. Those that judge and cause you to feel worse about yourself than you already do are showing their true colors and maybe should not have the benefit of your presence around them in the first place. Hard pill to swallow but sometimes it is the pill we need.

If you are missing a loved one, the joyful occasion of a holiday can also be a reminder of their loss. The holidays can also ignite unattended grief, grief that sneaks up on you when you think you “have it under control”. If you are mourning the loss of a loved one, embrace the process. Whether it’s been 5 months or 5 years, embrace your feelings. Ignoring those feelings is not equivocal to controlling them. Acknowledging your feelings allows you to honor your loved one and allows them to continue to be a part of the holiday season with you. Talking to someone that has also lost a loved one and is hurting can by a cathartic experience for both of you. You may consider creating a new tradition to honor your loved one such as playing their favorite Christmas song, baking their favorite cookie or watching their favorite holiday movie. This can be part of your “new normal” without your loved one.

I saw a post that said “It’s okay to create your own family traditions; It’s okay to decline extended family invites; It’s okay to prioritize your child’s routine/schedule; It’s okay to not give any explanation for how you choose to spend the holidays with your family and It’s okay to do whatever will make it enjoyable for you and your family”. Write that down if you need a reminder. Put it where you will see it every day if you need to. This is where depression, anxiety, and guilt creep in. When we want to do the above but we feel pressured by others to do the opposite of what is comfortable to us.

The holidays are not a permission slip for the people that hurt you to expect hugs and laughter and gifts all while ignoring the “elephant in the room”. The holidays are not a reason to forget the grieving you are experiencing. All of the emotions that the holiday season can exacerbate are overwhelming and exhausting. Make yourself and your feelings a priority. Enjoy the season in the best way you can give whatever circumstance you are experiencing. Instead of aiming to please everyone around you, aim for peace. Peace within yourself and peace around you. If peace for you and around you means excluding certain people or not attending certain get-togethers, then so be it. All the anger, resentment, sadness and anxiety that you tuck away for the holiday season will rear its ugly head in January. Take precautions and steps to not let that happen by being “real” and at the moment with your feelings and thoughts as they occur.

This holiday season I wish you the ability to be true to yourself, your feelings and your need to find and secure peace in your lives.

Kari Swanson is a Master’s level clinician with 25 years of working in the mental health field. She is the founder of CORE–Choosing Openness Regarding Experiences which is a non-profit organization with the mission to provide mental health awareness and suicide prevention education to Warren County.

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