It’s the season to be merry. Right? Look up the word “merry” and you get “cheerful and lively.” So why is it that I see so many people in the weeks leading up to Christmas and New Years who look anything but cheerful and those I get to speak with in my practice tell me that it’s not only how they look but also how they feel (props to Billy Crystal’s character Ricardo). And the way many of us feel is stressed. But stress is not enough of a description. If you go deeper, stress is made up of anger, guilt, anxiety, impatience, over-responsibility, sadness, grief, trauma, and________ you fill in the blank.
1. John and Mary are a couple in their mid-thirties. They have a 2-year old daughter. They live in Eastern Long island. Mary’s Mom and Dad live in Eastern Ohio. They came into a recent therapy session fighting about the standing invitation they have to travel eight hours on Christmas eve day to be at Mom’s house for Christmas day because that has always been the tradition in Mary’s family, and that is the whole family — an extended family of fifteen — gather at Mom’s house. John is stressed from work and gift buying. He wants to stay closer to home. His own family of origin is one-half hour away. They cannot compromise because of the “tradition” and no one will help make the trip easier by paying for a flight and and rental car. This couple, and their little family unit, is under stress. No merryment here. No joy. They have an oppressive obligation, guilt, anger, and on top of those feelings, marital conflict.
2. Barry, a single man in his thirties, grew up in a family with alcoholic parents. Christmas has always been a time of sloppy merryment followed by abuse and blackouts during family gatherings. He experienced trauma and for him “Christmas — bah humbug” has always been his sentiment. He hates shopping for gifts. Thinks Black Friday is an apt description of the day after Thanksgiving and wishes he could just sleep through Christmas. But he feels empty this time of the year, wishes he had a warm and safe harbor to go to and feels uncomfortable spending the holiday with friends, even though he gets invited and often accepts the invitation. When he is with his family of friends, as welcoming and as warm as they are, Barry feels a longing and sadness.
For the next two weeks we will be talking about how to turn holiday stress into joy. Here are some early recommendations:
1. Avoid returning to a toxic situation no matter how lonely you may feel, no matter how much guilt is placed upon you.
2. Know your boundaries. Saying “no” when “no” makes eminent sense is something we all must learn how to do. That means to know the difference between normal stress and distress. If traveling eight hours before a holiday with a two-year old creates distress, disharmony, or dis-ease then opt for a healthier alternative. Know your spending boundaries. Know your energy boundaries. Know your eating and drinking boundaries.
3. Have a sharper awareness of the oppressive “shoulds.” Once you know what they are, determine if you want to be under their influence.
4. Finally, know what makes you happy and make that your goal for the holidays.
Look for more in the next couple of weeks. For now, take time for yourself, breathe, tell yourself some positve affirmations, and notice the good in others and let them know.
As always come and participate. Send us your holiday stories on the topic (They can be about difficult issues or they can be about joy and merryment (after all, that is how we want to experience this time). Ask Dr. Ike your questions. Remember this site is a service that provides free advice and coaching. And of course, the holiday season is filled with music that runs the gamut — from silly to sublime. So offer your favorites and we’ll post them for you. Below is our opening set of holiday songs.
Oh, and this little Marx Brothers’ gem: There Ain’t No Sanity Clause