“Here it is again: The holidays. I have to shop. I hate to shop. I have to cook. I hate to cook. The relatives are coming – never did like Aunt Gertrude. Another office party standing around making conversation with people getting loaded just because the booze is free. Visit to my husband’s sisters. Never did like them either. I resent buying gifts for adults I don’t know or don’t like and for kids who are ungrateful. I hate this time of year.”
The woman on the other end of the phone is working herself up into a black, black mood. She finds the whole holiday season overwhelming and depressing. For her, Halloween to New Year’s is a long series of demands for conviviality and cheer that she just doesn’t share. She wants a way out. Barring that, she wants me to just help her cope until it’s over. I have a bias that helping someone tolerate something she finds intolerable for over two months a year isn’t really an acceptable solution. I’d like her to consider the idea that she could experience the yearly arrival of holidays differently. The holidays don’t have to be an ordeal. It’s all in how she looks at them.
It’s true that December can feel relentless. It’s true that a whole additional layer of tasks gets piled on to lives that are often too busy, too stressed, and just too full. We’re surrounded by lights, advertisements, decorations, and bell ringers. Special events and family expectations compete for our time and our peace of mind. We are reminded daily, sometimes hourly, that this is supposed to be a special time of year. If you’re a parent, there are holiday concerts to attend and holiday gatherings in the classroom, at the Scout meetings, and at Sunday or Saturday school. Ready or not, like it or not, we’re surrounded by holiday hoopla every year. It’s no wonder that we all feel stretched.
Personally, I think most of the advice offered in the “living pages” of newspapers and the women’s magazines sold at the grocery store misses an important point. Most of the articles stress cutting down and cutting out. Although minimizing might be helpful, I’ve talked to many people who don’t do much to observe the holidays and are still miserable. I think the real issue for most of the Bah-Humbug folks is that they are in a huge fight with the holiday world. It’s the fight that’s making them miserable, not the time of year.
Being grumpy takes a lot of energy. Resenting every minute you’re in the mall makes the experience exhausting. Focusing on how much you don’t like some of the people going to the party makes the party a downer before you even get there. Being angry at how you’re spending the holiday time zaps all the potential joy out of it. Playing Scrooge when those around you are celebrating ensures that other people will keep their distance and leave you alone and lonely. Unless you are willing to go into some dark hole from pre-Thanksgiving to New Year’s, you are going to be confronted with the holidays in ways large and small every day. If the holidays are inevitable, and they certainly seem to be, why not find ways to enjoy it?
An attitude transplant isn’t as hard or as time consuming as it may seem. It doesn’t take more time. It takes changing how you use your time from working up your anger to allowing for peace. Here’s how:
- Drop the fight. Remind yourself that no one is really making you do anything. The holidays don’t victimize anyone. They just are. You can choose to find moments of happiness in the season or you can make yourself miserable. It’s up to you.
- Quit trying to change other people. You can’t make anyone else do anything either. When you don’t like what’s going on, you only have two choices: Leave or change yourself. How people you know are likely to behave is not new information. Plan ahead. Think of a graceful exit strategy for yourself if things get too intense. Option two is to set something new in motion by changing your own reaction. See what happens if you act interested instead of annoyed; if you make a joke instead of acting angry or hurt.
- Meditate. Pray. Observe a little silence each day. Use whatever way you find most helpful to get in touch with something larger than yourself. Remind yourself what the holidays are really about.
- Count your blessings. Angry at having to buy presents for family? Be glad you have family to buy presents for. Unhappy that you have to go to an office party? Hey you have a job! Stressed about how many people are vying for your time? Be happy that you are wanted and needed. Make a list of all your complaints and transform them into appreciations. Now read your new list. Feel better?
- Find a role model. Don’t know how to act like a happy person? Think of someone you know who genuinely loves the holidays. How does that person walk through a room? How does he or she talk about holiday time? Try zipping yourself into that person’s “personality suit.” Really focus on taking on that person’s approach to life for an hour or two. Chances are it will feel better than the suit you’ve been wearing.
- Surround yourself with positive people. If you lean towards the negative yourself, hanging out with bitter, depressed, or resentful people will only reinforce your worst tendencies. Spend time with people who have a sunnier point of view.
- Exercise. Go for a walk or a run. Work out at the gym or to your favorite tape. Put on music and boogie. Get those endorphins going and you’ll feel better.
- Be helpful. Do something for someone who needs a break. Being generous feels good. Reaching out to help someone else, especially when we don’t particularly feel like it, has been found to be very healing.
- Don’t drink. Contrary to what a lot of people think, drinking doesn’t make unhappy people happier. Alcohol is a depressant. If you tend towards being depressed, it will only make you feel worse.
Back to my new client: I genuinely do understand and empathize with her pain. She’s miserable. She called because she still has some hope that things could be different. That hope is the foundation for the work we’ll do together. The holidays (in American culture at least) really are inevitable. However much she might wish it, she and I can’t make them go away. What we can do is find ways for her to transform her negative approach to the season into something more positive and useful. By changing how she looks at it, she may discover some of the joy that’s been available to her all along.