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Ho Ho Hum: Coping with Sadness During the Holiday Season

It’s that time of the year again. Or, as some may say, it’s that time of the year again!

Whether you’re the most enthusiastic merry-maker on your block or the most cynical Grinch there ever was, there’s one thing we Americans all have in common during the month of December: Christmas is inescapable. From the non-stop jingle bells tunes on the radio and in the stores, to the incessant commercials selling the hottest new gadgets that little Jimmy is sure to love, to the glowing lights and manger displays filling up the streets, the message is clear. It’s Christmas time and that means one thing: be merry.

But what if you’re not feeling so jolly? What if this year your “Ho Ho Ho,” is feeling more like a “Ho-hum”? What if you’re not looking forward to the festivities, or don’t have anyone to celebrate with, or can’t afford to buy presents because you’re broke? Or what if your sweetheart is overseas, or in the hospital, or you’re grieving the loss of a loved one? Or what if you’re just an ordinary human being and you actually have mixed feelings about holidays, rather than just “happy”?

Ever wonder if there’s room for you during the holiday season? Ever feel like you need to put on a shiny face and pretend you’re having happy holidays when you’re actually feeling slightly to extremely miserable? I’m here to tell you you’re not alone. For a lot of people, the holiday season is anything but happy. Loneliness, disappointment, grief, resentment, stress, family conflict, and financial worries are rampant, it’s just not what the songs and commercials and stores are talking about. And it’s certainly not being talked about at the office holiday parties. As you may have noticed, it can be especially hard to acknowledge and honor how you’re truly feeling when everywhere you turn there is pressure to be in the holiday spirit.

If it’s an authentic holiday season you’re after, rather than a run-of-the-mill happy holiday season, I have some tips for you.

First and foremost, remember that whatever you are feeling is perfectly fine for you to be feeling. If you find yourself trying to talk yourself out of what you’re feeling, stop. Signs you’re trying to talk yourself out of your feelings include saying or thinking things like: “Well, it could be worse,” “At least I have (fill in the blank),” “I shouldn’t complain,” “I should be grateful.” Of course it could be worse, and of course it feels better to be feeling grateful, but that’s not the point right now. The point right now is to let yourself feel what you’re feeling, because that’s what’s true and authentic in this moment. And if you push away your feelings, you’re walking away from an incredible opportunity for self-care and healing. Think of it as a priceless Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa gift to yourself.

Second, identify what you’re feeling. Sometimes all we know is that we’re not happy, and it can be hard to get clear on what we actually are feeling because we have so many judgments that we should be feeling happy. But what’s actually the truth of your experience? It can help tremendously to simply name what you’re feeling. Are you feeling gloomy? Despair? Irked? Envious? Weary? This list of feelings helps: The key here, which I can’t emphasize enough, is to try to put your judgment aside. There is no wrong or right way to be feeling right now, even though there are messages galore that tell you otherwise. There is nothing wrong with you for feeling unhappy. It’s just the way it is sometimes for us multi-faceted human beings.

Next, inquire into what is important to you. Underneath it all, what is your heart longing for? For many people, the holidays trigger a deep longing for a sense of harmonious family connection, as well as for community and belonging. While some people are lucky enough to have these needs met, for many of us, loss, conflict, isolation, and alienation are more in the foreground of our experience. A lot of the sadness, grief, resentment, and loneliness that we experience during the holidays are connected to our precious human needs for belonging and connection. Or maybe it’s another need that’s up for you. Here’s a list of needs to help you get to know what your heart is longing for:

Give yourself a few moments to “sit with” the needs you identified. There’s a lot of rush-rush-rush during the holiday season, but what if you could just take a few breaths as you feel into how much you long for a sense of connection, or belonging, or family, or whatever it is? Tears might come, and that’s okay. Be tender with yourself. You’re letting yourself connect with your vulnerability as you let yourself know what’s truly in your heart, what most deeply matters to you.

Now that you’re in touch with your feelings and needs, do you have any requests of yourself or anyone in your life? Any creative ideas for how you could meet one or more of these needs? Perhaps it’s calling a friend and letting them know that you’re going to be alone on Christmas and you’d like some company. Or maybe it’s going to a yoga class or church or temple to connect with something larger. Or maybe it’s giving yourself permission to cry when you feel the urge, rather than swallowing it and putting on a happy face. The possibilities of ways to care for yourself are endless when you let yourself take your own needs seriously.

My wish for you this holiday season is to give yourself the greatest gift I know of—the gift of your own loving presence. Whether happy, sad, or any of the other human emotions you’re sure to experience this month, I hope you can be compassionate with yourself in as many moments as possible. And, as my friend Newt Bailey recently said at the end of a workshop on the topic, “I hope you have a holiday season.” (Doesn’t that take the pressure off?)

Originally published on Psyched in San Francisco

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