The holidays arrive each year with an abundance of expectations. We’re expected to be having fun and feeling joy, to be surrounded by loved ones and a warm, connected family to which we effortlessly belong. We’re expected to be busy and enjoying all sorts of exciting and festive activities, doing special holiday things. In short, we’re expected to be happy… well, actually, not just happy, happier than we are at any other time of the year.
And for some of us, all of the above is true; our holidays meet the expectations our culture sets for us.
But, I am struck by a very strange phenomenon. Every year, I witness firsthand the great chasm between the story we tell ourselves about the holiday season, the cultural mythology if you will, and the truth of the experience that so many people are having this time of year. The disparity between what we’re supposed to be living (and imagine everyone else is living) and what we’re actually living seems to grow wider with each generation of reindeers.
The truth is, many people do not have warm and loving families to go home to, relatives with whom they feel they genuinely belong. Many are not busy with exciting and interesting things to do throughout the season. And the fact that they aren’t having the holiday season they’re expected to have makes them feel even worse about themselves — less joyful and less happy.
There’s not just pressure to be having a great time and feeling loved at this time of year, but also to find (or even better, make) the perfect gift for everyone on our necessarily long list of friends and loved ones. We’re supposed to engineer presents that, while perhaps small in expense, are able to capture and celebrate the essence of each recipient. And finally, we’re supposed to enjoy the process of discovering that unique token to honor the profundity of our important relationships.
But once again, the reality of so many people’s experience, to which I am privy as a psychotherapist, simply doesn’t match these cultural expectations or the narrative we’ve constructed about this season. For so many, the feeling that we need to buy and create gifts for everyone in our life, all at once on an externally-determined date, is overwhelmingly stressful. And if we don’t want to give in the way we’re supposed to give, demonstrate our love and lovingness in the way we’re instructed to do so, we feel inadequate and ungrateful, ill-equipped to be a good person.
So, what is the best way through the season for those who have a holiday experience that differs from the one that our culture has scripted for us?
To begin with, we must throw out the “supposed-to-be” narrative that we’ve attached to this time of year and liberate ourselves from the cultural Kool-Aid in which we’ve been swimming. This narrative can then be replaced by a genuine curiosity for the truth: What is our actual experience of the holidays, not the experience we’re supposed to be having, but the one we are having? Secondly, we commit to being on our own side, to rejecting our inner bully, to stop blaming ourselves for our reality. Instead of blame, we offer ourselves compassion for where we are, and where we’ve gone off-script from the part we’re supposed to be playing in life.
In addition, when we get caught in imaginary stories about what life is supposed to look like, and in comparisons with the make-believe and real others who are having the holiday experience we’re not, we need to remind ourselves of what’s true. So many people are not living the holiday experience that our cultural mythology perpetuates, and many are afraid or ashamed to admit it. For most people, the holidays are a cocktail of emotions, some positive and some painful. It’s almost always both.
We need to stop believing the story of a sustained seasonal happiness, a wholeness and fulfillment that the holidays will offer, and realize that we’re not alone in our human experience. We need to stop telling ourselves that we’re a failure if we don’t meet the expectations that our consumption-oriented culture has set for us. Our human truth is far more complex and layered than the fairy tale we’re holding ourselves accountable to.
Furthermore, we need to take ourselves back to the basics. That is, to remember what this season is supposed to be about (and in this case “supposed to be” is a good thing). We need to reconnect with the values that are at the heart of this season, values that our maniacal consumerism and mandatory happiness have led us away from. We must reorient ourselves towards kindness, compassion, service, love, and simplicity — the qualities that this season’s teachings are all about.
We ask ourselves first, can I offer myself kindness and compassion during this time of year, without expectation and judgment? Can I form a relationship with my own experience (no matter what it is) that is friendly and loving? Can I promise myself my own kind company for this season and all seasons? And can I offer others kindness and compassion, and help them to know they’re not alone? Can I give others my full attention and listen without judgment? Can I be with others in a way that is loving? With these questions in mind and heart, we uncover a safe refuge from the stories we’re sold (and sell ourselves) about this time of year. With kindness for self and others as our center line, our guiding compass, we can be fundamentally okay, even if we’re not okay, no matter what season it may be.