With the Thanksgiving holiday complete, we’ve now approached one of the biggest hurdles of the year for some people – the holiday season. For many people, the season can trigger its share of painful memories. I’m no different. The holidays can trigger difficult emotions and even despair for me, if I allow. If I allow.
I recently saw a client who struggles with the holidays. Her family has been less than forgiving of her individuation since she became an adult. Coupled with the shadow of their own unhealed emotional wounds, interactions with them serve to harm my client more than comfort her. There are years when she’s too exhausted from work-related travel to turn around and travel 4 states away for Thanksgiving. Christmastime becomes an Olympic sport of dodging their harsh criticisms of her. Thankfully, she’s created a small circle of friends with whom she enjoys time and, over the years, her preference has been to skip the family gatherings and join those friends. This year after she announced to her parents she would not be traveling to their home for Thanksgiving, they offered up a plate of holiday shame and sent her into a tailspin of guilt. Being an only adult child of aging parents, she fears they will keep their threatened promise of cutting off all contact with her if she doesn’t succumb to their wishes. Let me be clear. They are threatening to permanently cut off all contact if she doesn’t share this one particular meal with them. In fact, they refused to speak to her for several days after her announcement. She called me in tears and panic.
…..…the season can trigger its share of painful memories and even despair for me, if I allow. If I allow.
After we spent some time helping her ground herself and manage the overwhelming anxiety, she asked me if she could cancel Christmas this year. “Can I just cancel Christmas, please?” I swiftly replied that she could do whatever she wanted. After all, she’s grown. We both chuckled at our exchange. She frequently seeks my “permission” to make choices for her life. I frequently remind her doling out permission is not my role as her therapist. Our conversation reminded me of the many adult clients I’ve worked with over the years who wrestle with the holiday season. So many events can taint our experience. After years of pretending to be joyful, a common defense is to become cynical. We can easily confuse the pretense of our existence with the thought that a holiday is meaningless. That’s okay. It can be meaningless if we choose it to be. We control our own value system. Frankly, a holiday, or any day of the year, can be exactly what we want – what we allow it to be. Don’t get me wrong. Mood illnesses like clinical depression or anxiety can make it difficult for anyone to enjoy life. Those moods can convince us to cancel choice as an option for how we cope. Traumatic memories can feel like a dictator that strips us of all choice. The ultimate manifestation of that would be to make one final choice and take our own life. I’m thankful that my client has not latched on to the ultimate final choice for herself. She ultimately decided on giving herself time alone and space to create her own holiday traditions, replacing shame with healing and kindness. She continues to fight back and learn more effective ways to cope. I encourage you to know you can fight back with your own permission to be healthy. That might mean spending a holiday away from family. It might mean setting boundaries. It might mean leaning in to those difficult gatherings and learning you can survive. You get to choose. Of course I hope you always choose adaptive, healthy ways to manage life. Choices that leave you feeling free of burden and grateful for another day.
Traumatic memories can feel like a dictator that strips us of all choice. I encourage you to know you can fight back with your own permission. You get to choose.
There’s no shortage of recommended lists on the Internet for “how to cope with the holidays”. So I won’t be posting another one for you. Okay, maybe I’ll post one short list. I can’t help myself. Truthfully, though, none of those lists will do you any good unless you choose them. If you’re struggling with the holiday season, take time to consider how you’d like to cope. I choose to enjoy them as a way of finding meaning in my life. My value system includes faith-based beliefs that help. Yours might not. You choose. You can even cancel Christmas if you want. Just don’t cancel choice.
Click on the link below to see my recommendations for how to effectively cope with the holidays.