How’s your holiday spirit? Does the wonder of wrapping gifts, sending cards, shoveling walks, finding that party dress and elbowing through Costco have you bursting with holiday happiness? No?
Most of us have learned that we are supposed to be happy, positive and grateful. Grateful for the opportunities that life has presented us, grateful for our health, grateful for … everything. If you spent any time on social media over Thanksgiving, you were likely awash in #grateful, #blessed, #thankful.
There ARE massive health benefits to recognizing our blessings. Gratitude reduces depression, decreases blood pressure, improves sleep, strengthens relationships and amps our quality of life in lots of ways. But here’s the rub. Sometimes the holidays are not jolly at all. We’re stressed. We’re broke. We’re lonely. We’re preoccupied that the kids are with their in-laws or overwhelmed by missing mom. Everyone else seems to be living a magical holiday full of joy, cheer and gratitude. So many of us, in the quest to be constantly, positively grateful — ignore, suppress or shy away from our true emotions.
It goes something like this: I feel sad. I’m not supposed to feel sad. I’m a positive person. I should be grateful.
We are taught to avoid unpleasant emotions. We may try to escape with alcohol, food, busy-ness, compulsive sex or other self-harming behaviors. Dulling feelings may help you experience less sadness and anger, but it also stops you from feeling happiness and joy. Being human is beaming with joy and weeping with heartbreak. It is grateful for a full house and devastated over that one empty chair. Experiencing sadness and hurt is part of what makes it so incredible to feel joy and happiness.
So, how do we take a season we’ve been told is supposed to be merry and bright and let it be all the other things too?
Here’s my holiday wish list:
Create a safe space and talk it out. Most of us don’t express ourselves fully because we don’t feel safe doing it. Find a space where you can fully express, whether it’s in your car (one of my favorites) or at a friend’s. Somewhere you feel totally comfortable. Then try a simple exercise. Set a timer for three minutes and say aloud, “I feel __.” Don’t stop until the timer goes off. Let yourself speak without a filter, even if the words don’t make sense right away. Embrace whatever comes.
Let traditions evolve. Many folks cling tightly to rituals and feel distress when they change. Re-imagine! If you’ve gone to midnight mass for decades, but no one is up for it anymore, discover that 8 a.m. mass can be special, too. Ask yourself WHY you feel so deeply about having everyone at your house for candle lighting. Perhaps when you realize you just want to see your family under one roof, you’ll be more willing to pass hosting to your kids.
Manage loneliness. If you’re dreading being alone, and you can prevent the circumstances, do it. It might mean the bus overnight to Boston. It might mean awkwardly accepting a neighbor’s invitation to Christmas dinner. Or, if you’re bummed that no one invited you to New Year’s, plan your own party! Or embrace being alone for the holidays. Schedule a massage, volunteer, surrender to Netflix or even plan a solo vacation. Whatever you do, do it mindfully. Instead of being pressured by the external expectations of what the holiday ‘should’ be — take control. When you feel in control of your experience, you feel better.
Commit to your health. Whatever it takes, take care of yourself. Put YOUR oxygen mask on first. Eat well. Don’t skip meals, but do skip the third serving of latkes. Pace yourself at the company party. Sleep. Exercise. Relax. That may mean sticking to online shopping. Maybe meditating, or sidestepping a political discussion with Uncle Frank. The holidays, even at their jolliest, can be exhausting. If your tank is full, you’ll be better able to deal with any emotionally trying experience.
Give Back. When we volunteer, we feel connected, reduce anxiety and depression, and strengthen self-esteem. Helping others in a meaningful way can also lower blood pressure, improve sleep and decrease risk of dementia. Babysit a young neighbor, ring the bell for the Salvation Army, offer a ride to a person who can’t drive, share your professional experience with a resource center as a career coach. Giving back helps us be resilient, which helps us be whole.
Practicing sitting with all the emotions we are capable of — not just the ones that get all the attention during the holiday season — is one of the best ways I know to thrive through not just this time of #blessings, but through all the seasons we live.
Erika Taylor is a community wellness instigator at Taylored Fitness, the original online wellness mentoring system. Taylored Fitness believes that everyone can discover small changes in order to make themselves and their communities more vibrant, and that it is only possible to do our best work in the world if we make a daily commitment to our health. Visit facebook.com/erika.taylor.303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.