The holiday season can be wonderful and filled with love and light, but the reality is that the holidays are also a struggle for many, many people. Family expectations can start to feel like demands, boundaries can get fuzzy, stress builds up and priorities that were clear before can suddenly feel like questions again. If you have struggled with depression or anxiety or using substances (or any other mental health challenge), then this time of year may be especially difficult. There are no easy fixes but if you decide you need help, there are people to turn to. I’ve gathered a few thoughts here which have been helpful for some of my patients in the past (these concepts come from a combination of psychoanalytic theory and Dialectical Behavior Therapy).
1. There is no normal.
Are you struggling with the idea that you *SHOULD* feel a certain way around the holidays because that is what “normal” people feel? Do you feel ashamed because the family dinner was ruined by uncle or aunt so-and-so’s drunken rant? Are you angry that your family sweeps everything under the rug for the holidays and puts on a big, fake show that is nothing like the rest of the year? The truth is that every family is different enough from every other family that there really is no normal version of family life. We never get to see other families from the inside, but it turns out that nobody fits the hallmark image, or the Hollywood image, or the Instagram image. Understanding this idea will obviously not fix everything, but it will get us out of our own way and help us to stop making matters worse with self-judgment (I say “us” because I think we’ve all been there at times, myself included).
2. Feelings are true, but not THE TRUTH.
What the heck does that mean?! It means that the feelings you feel are valid, but they are not the whole story. A feeling is real but not reality; it is important but it does not define you (or the person or situation you are having the feeling about). You are not your feelings. This is also true for thoughts: having a terrible thought does not make you a terrible person. Another way to say it: Don’t mistake the clouds for the sky. The blue sky and the sunshine are always there, even if the clouds stop you from seeing them. Clouds (thoughts/feelings) might get in the way, but on the other side of those clouds the sun is not doing anything different than it was before. There is a paradox in letting feelings be “just feelings” without devaluing them at all. If we can find that bit of wiggle room around the feelings it makes terribly difficult feelings much more tolerable.
3. Words are magic
Well not exactly, but they *CAN* be. Of course words fall flat sometimes, and it feels like they will never be able to communicate what they need to, but don’t give up! The trick is that the words have to be set free. If you don’t try to speak out then the words have no chance to do their thing. It is never easy to find the right set of words to describe your inner experience, but the process of looking for those words and speaking them out loud is a major part of what is healing about therapy. You can also write down the words or draw images to get at the feelings, the point is not to keep them stuck inside.
Of course with all of these different ways of expressing yourself, it is important to have someone on the other end who knows how to listen. There is help to be had, you don’t have to do go through it alone!