I’ve spent some time talking about the holiday blues — what they are, how to recognize when they turn into serious symptoms of depression (so you can get professional help), and practical things you can do to help minimize the milder forms of stress and sadness that can crop up for all of us during the end-of-year holidays. This week I will talk about some of the internal shifts that we can make in order to appreciate the holiday season without feeling overwhelmed by anxiety or depression.
I’d like to start with a description from my own holiday experience last year. It was several days before Christmas and we were all at my sister’s house. My sister and I had set up a cookie-decorating session with my daughter (age five) and nephew (age four). A number of relatives had dropped by to visit. The kids were in the kitchen, where they happily mixed large amounts of food coloring into the little bowls of icing we had made. They were creating all sorts of brown and muddy green shades, which didn’t look very appetizing to my sister and me, but which they gleefully spread on the cookies in huge globs. The kids made sure every cookie got a finishing touch — thick sprinklings of sugar and jimmies. In the next room, the other adults talked about final plans for the holidays, about my grandfather, who had just been moved into a nursing home, and about upcoming travel.
I looked at the children, with their happy, absorbed faces and their excited chatter about Santa, and I felt a wave of joy, nostalgia, and bittersweet awareness: joy at the pure pleasure and innocence of the children, nostalgia for some of those same feelings from my own childhood which I now can no longer capture, and a bittersweet awareness of life’s transience. I realized that the children were not going to stay like this for more than a brief flash in time, and that these moments of joy are fleeting. Ironically, at the same instant, I heard a discussion start up in the living room — two relatives began to complain about the behavior of a third. This pattern of unhappy interaction, I said to myself, is not a brief flash in time! This pattern of complaining has been going on (it seems) forever!
What a paradox! The happiest and sweetest moments with the people we love appear to be fleeting, while the patterns of complaint and difficult interaction seem to endure — the same thing, year after year! And the demands of the holidays: Each year it seems there are more responsibilities and less time, more rushing around and less appreciation of the precious, joyful moments that have nothing to do with gifts, decorations, parties, clothes, or shopping. As I reflected on this, I realized that there are three important things we can all do at an internal, personal level to deepen our ability to enjoy the holidays.
1. Appreciate the transience and impermanence of the joyful moments. Make space for them to occur — this means simplifying everything you do and focusing on the people and experiences you love. It is difficult to experience joyous moments of beauty when you are rushing around exhausted and nervous and with a long “to-do” list. Acknowledge that the moments are fleeting, and give them your full attention when they occur. Our culture, which is very focused on “getting,” “buying,” “owning,” “being entertained,” “avoiding boredom,” and “continuous satisfaction,” does not make a lot of allowances for quiet moments of appreciation.
2. Tolerate ambivalence, especially during the holidays. This means learning to accept that most of the profound experiences in life are tinged with multiple and often contradictory feelings. A rush of pleasure as you watch your child in a school play can be accompanied by a sad sensation of how quickly they grow up; deep love and tenderness for your spouse can co-exist with exasperation and disappointment; attachment to your favorite cousin can be mixed with envy. Again, our culture gives us a message that things must be perfect, or we must change them; you must be totally 100 percent in love with the perfect person, living life to the fullest, or there is something wrong with you. In fact, becoming an adult means moving away from the childish view that people are all good or all bad, that every situation is either great or terrible, and that every aspect of our holiday celebrations have to be “perfect” and filled with perfect happiness and satisfaction.
3. Give up the idea that you know what is best for others. This one may be the hardest of all! We all feel that we know what would make things better for everyone around us, and we all feel that if others just behaved in the way we think they should behave, we would have a perfect holiday. If only Uncle Bob would quit smoking; if only Dave raised his children with better manners; if only Mary and Ellen didn’t bicker … the list goes on and on. The fact is, we don’t know what is best for another person, and we often don’t really know why people do the things they do. If you can learn to relax about the behavior and quirks of others, to be detached from them (even when it is unpleasant behavior, like bickering), and even to laugh about all the things you observe (at least to yourself), you will be much more relaxed and able to enjoy all of the good moments. This doesn’t apply to behavior that is dangerous or threatening, of course. Substance abuse that is endangering a person’s health or their family life, and domestic violence or criminal behavior of any sort must be addressed immediately with the help of professionals.
With these shifts in your perceptions and expectations, you will be better able to appreciate all that is “holy” in the holidays, to accept and even laugh at the things which are a bother, and to tolerate the moments of sadness and anxiety, knowing that though they are real, they are only a small part of the whole.