Some Thoughts on Surviving and Growing Through The Holidays

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By Granville Angell, Ed.S., L.P.C., N.C.C.

The popular conception of the holiday season in our culture holds us to a picture of joy, celebration and family reunion that adds yet another chapter to years of happy memories. Yet for many of us, this Norman Rockwell picture of the holidays stands in stark contrast to the real-life scenario behind and in front of us. This is a time when we are supposed to be full of joy and merriment and eager to celebrate the season with our friends and loved ones, but we just cannot emotionally place ourselves into the picture.

The Dilemma

No matter how hard we try, we find ourselves going through the motions, "fakin' it in hopes that we will make it." Behind the forced smiles and gestures are feelings of blandness and joylessness, or even hopelessness and despair. Some of us in this emotional state may have awareness of how we arrived here, yet many of us are lost as to why we may feel this way. Let's explore some of the sources behind the holiday blues, along with some ideas for getting past them.

First, our culture places expectations on us that we are to have joy and merriment during this season. We publicly recognize that this is the time to celebrate the anniversary of powerful religious events, whether it be that of celebrating the birth of our Savior or observing the celebration of Hanukkah. It has been reported that even folks who are not part of the Christian or Jewish traditions find themselves caught up in the festivities of the season. Also, since the dysfunctionalities of our culture so interpenetrate our religious institutions, many of us have highly conflicted spiritual lives (more on this later) which confuse us as to the meaning of those seasonal expectations. We take time off work for these occasions and change our whole routine around for the holiday celebration. What this all adds up to is the first cultural influence we must face during this time: the impact of expectation that we must join the rest and get into the mood of the Season. However, emotions and what's behind them don't operate on a time schedule. For example, we can't just hurry up and get over our grief in time for the holidays!

The impact of time is the second cultural influence we come up against in our efforts "to be with everybody else" in the season. On one level, the yearly coming of "the Season" is the most powerful anniversary in our culture because it is a shared event that comes around every year on an exact schedule for all of us, whether we are ready for it or not.

The third cultural influence we must face about the holidays is the impact of returns. Time brings us around again and, because of this recognized interval in the cycles of our world, we come face-to-face with the changes over the past year. For many of us, somebody who was with us last year is no longer with us this year. So, the pain of grief becomes especially poignant, at best, and overwhelming at worst. For all of us, as we get older, we remember holidays past, and naturally think of those who are no longer with us. Thus, some element of grief can creep into our holidays and get stronger year by year as we get older. Unresolved grief can become particularly painful for some of us at this time, especially if we are alone.

In fact, our lack of resolution on certain issues in our lives is another aspect of the impact of returns during the holidays. This is not just a period for thanksgiving and celebration; it is also a time for homecoming. We are returning to each other over the holidays and bringing with us all of our unresolved conflicts in relation to each other.

Earlier in our lives, we moved apart. Children left home. Friends or relatives moved away. And, we changed. Over the years, we change physically and, hopefully on higher levels, we grow in various ways. Some of us may get sicker, though. Not, just physically, but in other ways persons may deteriorate from year to year. Uncle Harry's alcoholism may be worse. For some, this would be a return to an irritating inconvenience, but what if Uncle Harry brought incest to your childhood during a drunken event? Or, maybe the drunk was a parent, and you are home for the holidays with your children (just hoping...). So many of us left home or moved away from someone with unresolved conflicts about the past. Those conflicts don't just go away with time. They hide somewhere inside us, waiting to spring forth when the holidays return us to old, familiar surroundings. If we have become good at hiding our pain from ourselves, unresolved relationship conflicts may come up in us as holiday depression at the thought of returning to each other; or as a sense of dread or vague discomfort we can't quite put a finger on.

There is a saying: "We are only as sick as the secrets we keep." Returning to each other over the holidays reapplies old pressures anew to those family secrets and buried conflicts. Adult children hope a grandparent will stay sober for their children. Grandparents hope a son is responsible-enough to look after the kids properly. An aging widow faces her first Christmas alone. If only so-and-so won't blow up this time . . . the concerns across the land are endless. Those of us who do the kind of work I do know that some degree of family dysfunctionality is not the exception, but the rule. But our culture hides its pains in the closet, then buries them under piles of gifts stored in secret until that special day when we attempt to materially compensate for what we fear to give spiritually and emotionally.

So, let's see if we are together in our perception of how the holidays are experienced for so many of us in our present culture. Making believe we are alien anthropologists monitoring the planet from our spaceship, what would we see? We would observe a culture that sets aside a holiday period in which everybody is supposed to be happy at the same time every year, regardless of what has happened over the past year, or holidays past. This is in celebration of the anniversary of powerful spiritual events, the significance of which by observation of cultural practices, much of the population is mostly at a loss to understand or appreciate. Finally, everybody returns to each other in various ways over the Holidays, bringing unresolved relationship conflicts to be buried under an avalanche of commercial material festivities and goodies, exchanged with forced smiles . . . and secret longings to "just get through another holiday season." (This could double as a clue to why we still wonder if there is intelligent life out there.)

Clearly, this scenario is not true for everybody, but if all of us were to suddenly become honest with ourselves and with each other, the number of unhappy holiday people would be staggering. One of the most common expressions I have shared with many of my clients over the years (especially over recent years) is, "The craziness is not in you . . . it's in our culture!" Often our suffering is largely due to how much we take seriously, or identify with, our culture and its practices. If we look beyond and through the holiday practices and expectations of our culture, we can gain some insights that will have the potential to bring meaning and even joy into our experience of the season.

 Toward Survival and Growth During the Holidays

The first step we can take in facing the holidays (and life in general) is to be honest; first with ourselves, then with each other. There is really no law that says we have to be happy just because it's the holidays! Always, there is some underlying cause for holiday unhappiness. The honesty required in identifying and owning our feelings forms the foundation of courage required for discovering the cause. Many people who are holiday-depressed have been depressed during the rest of the year and the coming of the festive holiday season sets the mood state in stark contrast to the celebration of others.

For other holiday-depressed persons, it's clearly the season. If we step back and look at the cultural expectations of the season upon us, it could be argued that a negative or depressed reaction might even be a healthy response under some circumstances! But, we must begin with honesty in identifying our holiday mood state to ourselves and to others. It is important to remember that there are no bad or wrong feelings. All feelings are okay: what's important is how responsibly we express them! Your ultimate well being will be better served by honestly expressing sad-but-pleasant (real) as opposed to happy-but-phony (unreal). By not tying-up your energies doing "impression-management," you will be free to consciously observe yourself over the holiday and, thus, ultimately identify the sources of your holiday pain.

Accept your feelings without putting demands on yourself to feel otherwise. Feelings are! The holidays are a time in which life becomes concentrated. As we return to each other and live more intensely, more happens in less time. Naturally, we are going to experience a (probably intense) mix of feelings. This is a time, more than any other, where we are called upon to communicate along the growing edge of our relationships, unresolved conflicts included. Those of us who are consciously working on our growth and recovery will welcome the chance to tear down walls and build bridges in our relationships. Others of us will be too frightened, still, or too angry. When we do express courage in trying to connect, our loved one may be too frightened, still, or too angry. Anger, turned inward (as in smiling through your holiday rage), leads to depression. There is one important thing we need to remember. For most of us, the holidays will not be all joy . . . and that's okay.

It's called "Surrender" when we realize and accept the limits of our control, while trusting that the Power behind what this season is all about will meet our everyday holiday needs. This includes our relationships . . .especially our relationships! In addition to a willingness to acknowledge and accept our own and others' feelings and perceptions, we need to be patient with ourselves and with each other. It's okay to be grieving over the holiday season! During such times, we should be sensitive and supportive of each other. This means "being there" with someone in their grief (or frustration, or fear, etc.), unless they express a desire to be alone.

For many of us, as we age, there is an unconscious realization growing in us that can lead to discomfort, or even dread, as we approach the holidays. Year by year, the seasons pass and we increasingly count the persons not present with each holiday season. We return to each other with a renewed opportunity each holiday season to heal and resolve old conflicts, yet we fear we are inadequate to the task. If we are getting any wiser at all, we realize that material gifts can never compensate for the emotional pain . . . for the potentially healing things that yearn so to be said. Will we risk it, finally? Will we say it this year, or dreading the worst possibility, will we put it off to the next in hopes they will still be around? There is a greater pain, by far, than the pain of fear and that pain is the pain of love unexpressed. Time only exists in reality as "now." And the only time we have power to express ourselves is in the "now." What do we need in order to say what we know must be said now?

It is the fear of being honest and open about our feelings in our close relationships that keeps us stuck. We fear rejection. Especially during the holidays, such feelings do not open us to the experience of joy: not within ourselves and not with each other. In the interests of "getting through it without a blow-up," we sacrifice all the joy we could have through true communion for the trickle of delight to be had in the momentary exchange of the goods through which we attempt to symbolize our true feelings. And another year goes by with our feeling that something is missing.

The key to finding that "something missing" behind the holiday doldrums is to be found in exploring the word, "meaning." Meaning is what happens when our minds and hearts come together in such a way that something both makes sense and feels right to us. We cannot experience joy in our present world without the experience of meaning. Yet, in our culture, we try to do it all the time - especially during the holidays. We go straight for the joy, without discovering the meaning.

First, in spite of all the holiday ceremony, we tend not to go deep enough in our efforts to experience the meaning of the sacred events we are celebrating. Much of religious tradition, as practiced in this culture, has taught us unfortunate habits that are deadly to our spiritual lives. Many of us are taught to not ask questions ("lest you face an angry God's wrath"); and to go through the motions ("it's tradition"); and that all happiness and joy come out of our rightness ("Righteousness"), whereas all our pain and suffering come out of our wrongness ("evil"). This leaves us with religion based around fear and ritual, not joy and Grace. This article does not lend time to explore how such practices damage our psychological and spiritual development (I am in the process writing a book that explores these issues in depth). Suffice it to say that an accurate metaphor describing how many of us approach the concept of Grace as taught by much of our culture is well-portrayed by the image of a starving man attempting to pluck a cherry out of an alligator's mouth.

The religious practice of much of our culture uses tradition and authority to strain out the miraculous and mystical from our spiritual legacy. In the historic religious tradition of our culture, we are taught that we are basically evil and not to rely on our own spiritual experience, but on some religious authority's interpretation of scripture. Thus taught, many of us are deprived of awareness of the powers of our intuition, the joy of experiencing the certain awareness of God's Presence or even the sense of illumination that comes from scripture revealed in a personal sense. Over time, the frightened child emotionally and physically distances itself from an angry, threatening parent. In a culture where so many of us have distanced ourselves out of a perception of an angry, threatening God, it is difficult to fully embrace the concept of the Nativity. Ultimately, if the meaning of religion and spirituality is taught to us in threatening terms, we will tend to avoid the issue of meaning.

Therefore, it is essential that we develop the courage to explore the deeper, spiritual meaning behind the holiday period. I wish I had time, here, to say more on this. First, look inside yourself and explore your actual experience of your religion and spirituality. Be honest with yourself. What emotions do you feel a sense of fear and violation or a sense of Presence and support (Grace)? From a prayerful and meditative state, locate any and all personally verifiable manifestations of your own spiritual experience. If you cultivate this inner awareness, in due time, you will encounter that "still, small voice," you may have heard of in church or synagogue or read about in scripture. Look for synchronicities or "meaningful coincidences" in your life that suggest the existence of a non-random, higher Presence behind the events of your life. Read, really read, about the Spiritual events that gave rise to the holidays. Take some time to be "alone" with your growing sense of this Presence in your life, then take some holiday time to share and explore with others who are willing to spend holiday time at this deeper level. If you are to experience any real meaning in the holidays, it is essential that you seek this level of experience as a first priority.

Once you have made a Spiritual connection, you will be better prepared to move to deeper levels in your interpersonal relationships over the holidays. First, you will be more inclined to be at peace with those conflicts over which you have no personal power to change. But, what about those relationship issues we just know should be addressed; yet our fear stands in the way? Taking strength from your practices described above, remember that meaning, rather than relief or happiness, is the initial goal in your interactions. It is easier to tolerate the discomfort (suffering) of a difficult interaction when you have not labeled it (and you) as bad or wrong. You are seeking to understand and be understood, so honesty with the other becomes as important here as honesty with self. Share your truth, your perceptions and your needs; then listen as the other shares his or her experience. We can never be wrong when we share from our experience. Most of all, share your love, while you still have a chance. Of course, this will be difficult and possibly painful. But operating from the truth, BOTH as you understand it and are willing to hear it, is the only path to joy, peace and freedom during the holidays or any other time.

Finally, this discussion must entertain our culture's focus on the material side of the holidays and how that contributes to the holiday blues. Given the profound multiplicity of Spiritual events, symbols and meanings in the story of the Nativity, it is curious (or not) that our culture focuses upon, and extrapolates the most from, the gifts of the Wise Men!

Perhaps the best argument I have heard (in my opinion) has to do with our giving to our children, materially, as a way of symbolizing our giving to the Christ Child; or giving to the inner Christ aspect of our children. How does that explain the rest of us? It is not my impression that our culture is so absorbed with inner-child work! We could do a book, here, on our awareness of how materially focused this erstwhile Spiritual season expresses itself in our culture.

In the parlance of psychological slang, we sometimes talk about "crazy-making behavior" as a term for behavior that tends to "induce" mental illness in others. This theme was common in early psychology literature. We talked about "schizophrenigenic mothers" and such, believing that much mental illness was the product of bad parenting. Today, however, we continue to recognize at least one predictably "crazy-making" element in childhood and adult existence.

When our experience and our perceptions, tell us one thing, and a person or other agency with enough power and authority, tells us something contradictory to what we perceive, the resulting confusion can be "crazy-making." The distress of accepting "the reality" of those in power and authority over one's own perceptions and knowing is a common cause of "induced" mental illness. For example, it can be brain-washing, or it can be the result of abusive parents. In my opinion, it can be the result of a society that identifies a Spiritually focused holiday period only to define and express that period predominantly through a narrow lens of greed and material acquisition. The significant number of us who fall prey to this seasonal phenomenon, are set-up to expect something profound and eventful. However, from Halloween through New Years, we are overwhelmed by the hustle-and-bustle commercial parade of material goods, events and expectations that passes for things spiritual. In a way, when the above is behind the depression and sense of meaninglessness that comes with the Season, we could argue that such a response is ultimately psychologically healthy. The remedy involves the undertaking of a personal Spiritual journey through the holidays (and through life) which moves one in the direction of fulfilling one's deepest Spiritual longings.

I know that many of these observations and recommendations about the holidays in our culture may appear to many of us as being outside the norm and even attacking our cultural practices. The nature of this article does not lend enough time to explore the dynamics of a dysfunctional, materialistic, power-focused culture (bless it!) that is only beginning to recognize the existence of an Overarching, "non-physical," metaphysical, or quantum Reality within which we live, and move and have our being. It is an exciting time, as science is beginning to discover what true religion has been telling us all along. For those of us who are courageous enough to seek these deeper truths as they express themselves in our personal experience, we have the great joy of riding that wave of Grace. Celebrating the holidays for their true meaning, openly sharing with others from the sincerest depths of our being, is a wonderful place to begin.

1997 by Granville Angell. All Rights Reserved. wpe1.jpg (12422 bytes)