Managing the Holidays Without Sacrificing Yourself
The holidays are meant to be a time of cheer, a time of giving and receiving, for surrounding yourself with friends and spending time with family. We conjure up images of warm embraces, an abundance of love, overwhelming gratitude, gift exchanges, laughter, and gatherings around the table to share a home cooked meal. But what if this isn’t your experience? What if instead, holidays were something you felt you had to endure, rather than celebrate?
For some, the holidays come with heavy loaded expectations that create extraordinary stress, leaving us feeling depleted, guilty and resentful. This is something extremely common that comes up in my work. With many of my clients, thoughts of spending time with family fuels a range of emotions such as anxiety, loneliness, anger, and depression.
It isn’t uncommon for those with histories of trauma to experience various emotions during the holidays. Some of us have memories of holidays gone bad. Childhood memories of holiday events may include times of increased emotional tension, heavy drinking, family members that felt like strangers invading our home, and perhaps even experiences. of physical or sexual abuse. Even if you don’t have a specific traumatic memory, those with attachment trauma may have adverse reactions to the holidays because of the emphasis and expectation of family contact and interaction.
The fact is our bodies keep track of these traumatic memories, even when we aren’t, and when triggers such as people or times of year approach, one can feel tension building inside. Our bodies are literally preparing for impact. It’s no wonder a person will continue to repeat the same emotional and behavioral patterns year after year.
However, awareness of your trauma responses can help you to make different choices that will support your healing rather than continuing down the same path and further traumatization. No matter what the source of trauma is, we can make healthier choices and engage in behaviors that minimize the impact of re-exposure and help cope with the pains of the holidays. Below is an outline of some tips and tools you can explore and try on.
- Let go of expectations and shoulds:
Today, the pressure to create the perfect holiday experience is the greatest it’s ever been. With the prevalence of social media, we are bombarded with reminders and comparisons of how our holidays “should” be. Those with histories of trauma often live in the “should” world; a guilt ridden narrative they use to navigate the holidays.
- “I should buy my kids the latest iPhone”
- “I have to spend time with family”
- “I should make sure there are presents for my distant cousin’s three kids so no one feels left out”
- “I have to invite everyone in the family to avoid conflict”
- “I should have a big family dinner”
When we live in the land of “shoulds”, we end up over-spending, obsessing on details, worrying about what others will think and how we are seen. Or we compare our experiences to the illusions portrayed on others’ Instagram and Facebook posts.
Letting go of the “shoulds” and expectations is one change we can readily engage in that will monumentally change your holiday pattern. This year, give yourself permission to be present, stay within your means, accept those limitations and create the experience you want rather than what you believe others want.
- Listen you your body and step away:
Our bodies are constantly sending us messages and when we listen, we can use these messages as a barometer to determine how we are responding to our environments and stressors. Are you experiencing headaches? Stomach aches? Muscle tension or heart palpitations? These are all trauma responses and cues to let you know you’re becoming triggered and it’s time to take a step back.
Creating space allows your body the opportunity re-regulate itself. Stepping away from the trigger, whether that be a family member, event or even your own thoughts, will give you the break you need to decide how YOU want to respond to the situation, rather than feeling stuck in these automatic reactions.
- Identify you go to coping mechanisms:
We all having coping mechanisms we’ve developed over the years to deal with stress and take the edge off overwhelming feelings. Some work better than others, and similarly, some are healthier than others.
Many coping mechanisms have negative consequences to our health, life and relationships. Often times these are the coping mechanisms we reach for when we are seeking instant relief. Using drugs, drinking alcohol, sexually acting out, engaging in self-harm, isolating, or controlling other aspects of our life or people in it, can all provide that instant gratification. However, these have profound negative effects in our life, and place us at higher risk for re-traumatization.
Developing healthy coping skills that are effective and immediate take time to cultivate. Like any valuable skill, they require some level of training and maintenance. When we incorporate these practices into our daily or regular routines, they become a part of us and organically unfold in response to triggers. Explore what coping skills might work for you, start trying some on and begin to integrate these into your practice so when you need them, they are readily available for you.
- BOUNDARIES, BOUNDARIES, BOUNDARIES:
Knowing your boundaries will be essential to maintaining your sanity and safety. When we look at boundaries in anticipation of the holidays, we can refine our focus on these three areas: time, space and finances.
With respect to time, it’s important to not over-commit or extend yourself. Remember, you are ONE person and do not have to say yes to everything. Nor do you need to take on the guilt others may throw at you for declining their invitations. Decide which activities you want to go to, which will maintain and even enhance your well-being. Identify these and commit without pause or personal sacrifice. And for those events we “have” to go to, identify a span of time you’re willing to give that won’t deplete your physical or emotional health.
Similarly, space boundaries involve choosing not just where, but who you can be around and remain in a place of calm sanity. On the other hand, if you’re one who tends to isolate, your space boundaries may involve limitations of the time you spend alone and deciding which activities or social groups to be a part of.
Financial boundaries often tie into the “shoulds” we discussed earlier. These can be related to childhood messages and values we internalized about how we measure and show love for one another. Additionally, shopping may be one of those coping skills we reach for in attempt to find that instant gratification and relief. Unfortunately, many people will find that they spend outside of their means, creating additional stressors related to meeting basic needs the following month(s). Sit down and iron out a realistic budget to know exactly how much you have to spend on gifts without having to compromise your financial security.
- See a therapist during the holidays:
Even with the insight and development of skills, it can be very helpful to see a therapist over the holidays. Therapy can offer a safe space for you to explore your experiences, identify and understand your trauma more and how they continue to impact your life and relationships. The holidays shouldn’t put you back into a state of survival and overload every year. So this year, think about gifting yourself with the compassion, self-care and boundaries you will need to not just survive, but dare I say enjoy the holidays.
When Life Closes a Door
We’ve all heard it before, “when one door closes, another one opens”. Though well intentioned, often these words of comfort fail to relieve the sting associated with rejection or loss. Instead, we are hit with consuming feelings of fear, panic, anger and devastation.
I was inspired to write about this because of an experience I recently had to walk through. Life took a sudden turn and something that I comfortably relied on was no longer available. In a moment’s notice I felt lost, insecure, and without direction. Friends and family reached out to me with an outpour of support, offering words of encouragement; many similar to the ones we started with.
See, I truly come from a place where I believe that everything happens for a reason and my life has shown me countless times that it has always brought me to a better place despite my fears and uncertainties. It’s important to note, however, that it’s okay to feel your feelings; to grieve the loss, to process the rejection. It’s hard and we must honor that. Before I was able to move forward, I needed to give myself permission to experience those feelings and move through the stages of grief.
Where many can get stuck though, is sitting in those feelings too long. While there is no definitive timeline for processing loss, there are some warning signs that you could be heading into dangerous territory. What I see most often with clients, and in full transparency what I experience most readily, is that fear turns into feelings of despair and hopelessness. These feelings trigger negative self-talk, which further contribute to feeling worthless and believing the world is against me.
It’s important to be mindful of when this is happening because it can be cunning and swift. It can lead us down a road that becomes paralyzing and damn near impossible to shift away from much less start taking action on. It’s about learning to sit with difficult feelings and situations to try and understand them instead of turning away or turning inward. It’s about how we think about these moments, in the moment, that makes the difference.
When we allow awareness in, we can meet ourselves with compassion and a non-judgmental perspective. We can choose to make room for both fear and faith; honoring the negative feelings (i.e. anger, failure, rejection, loss) yet still challenge the self-destructive thoughts with beliefs in our ability to walk through these hardships.
Part of moving forward is to stop confining ourselves to a path that we’ve been convinced is THE path. It’s an opportunity to pay attention to all the signs the mind and body have provided, telling us that we deserve better, that there is more for us. I’ve often experienced that the biggest life blessings are not in what it gives you, but in what it takes away. By letting go of what is not, we make room for what is to come.