Christmas: Best of times and worst of times. The most wonderful day of the year, and a perfect storm for psychological and relationship combustion.
A time of good cheer and sparkly lights, along, too often, with bitter words, troubled thoughts, unhappiness, odious comparisons and, at worse, a gloom or malaise that persists into the New Year.
Ultimately, it’s a question of weight and volume; the heavy combination of intense expectation, enforced proximity, financial strain, family dynamics, past tragedies and upsets, all compounded by lack of routine, even bad weather. All these play their part.
As does the wider social framework. Every Christmas ad out there, in fact the entire weight of late-capitalist consumerism, is brought to bear on the idea that Christmas is a time of wonder, that must be celebrated in an orgy of gift-giving, eating and drinking.
“We are swamped with the ideal of Christmas,” says psychotherapist and author Stella O’Malley. “We see it everywhere, on telly, Facebook, across social media, on billboards. And I know we all laugh at it, but there is a thing called The Illusory Truth effect: If you keep on seeing an image, you end up believing it, even if it’s farcical. If we keep being victims of images of idealised Christmases, showing happy families sitting round groaning tables laughing, with the warm glow of festive lights in the background – even if rationally we see through it, at a deeper level, we start to think this is what we should be having.”
Under that kind of weight, it can be hard not to buckle.
There are degrees of buckling – for some, it’s a heightened level of irritation, extra stress and a longing for the quiet weeks of January. But for others, Christmas is a truly painful time. In fact, regularly, around 10pc of people each year say they find Christmas very tough.
Each year, high volumes of people – up to a third – report feeling pressure to spend more than they can afford, and feeling run down and exhausted throughout December. Calls to helplines increase, while January is notoriously ‘divorce month’, in which lawyers see a high volume of proceedings begun (January 8 is, typically, the busiest day).
Ghost of Christmas past
We could all use a survival guide, so let’s begin with the Ghost of Christmas Past. This is the one where we all slot back into our ‘old’ family roles just as soon as we are all together again.
“You meet your family, and you fall into your old roles, even though you might be out of those family roles at every other point in your life,” says Stella O’Malley.
“One person might be the Responsible One. Someone else is the Troublemaker, the Drinker, the Peacemaker, the Complainer, and so on.
“It’s a good idea to predict those roles – your own, and theirs – and prepare. So when the Complainer starts giving out, think ‘ah, I predicted that! But I’m not going to rise.’ It’s satisfying, and means you don’t get caught on the hop, because you go into it forewarned.”
This, she points out, is especially important with the more difficult relationships. “Rather than think ‘oh God, I’m dreading so-and-so coming,’ it is more practical and helpful to think ‘I’m dreading X coming, because X is going to cause a fight and I’m going to react.’ Think it through. Ask yourself, ‘I wonder if I could break the pattern? I wonder if I could not rise to the bait?'”
As part of your psychological pre-prep, Stella recommends: “Set boundaries. Inevitably over Christmas, you will meet people – usually family members – who distress you. This is where you need to remind yourself that you can say no. That you don’t have to be a martyr, and you don’t have to make excuses for anybody else.”
There are, she points out, degrees of this distress, from mild irritation through to the person or people who really challenge you, perhaps because they have issues with alcohol, or are in some way a toxic presence in your life. “Organise ahead in your brain. If this starts getting messy, how do you get out without causing a stand-up row? You need to anticipate – ‘I’ll see them for three hours, and then I’m going to go.’ But make it a planned withdrawal. Work out how you will extricate yourself and possibly your children without a brawl.”
Have an exit strategy, a place you need to be, that you have signalled in advance: ‘we need to drop in on so-and-so…’ then produce it when you need to.
Dr Malie Coyne, clinical psychologist and NUIG lecturer, says “When it comes to preparing ourselves for the expectation versus the reality of Christmas, I really like the formula: ‘Happiness = Expectations minus Reality.’ Because we live in a world that drives our expectations up, we’ve ended up with a situation where our expectations are beyond reality’s capacity to meet them, so the gap between expectation and reality can be massive. The fact is that families spend more time together at Christmas, which can inevitably lead to tension and confrontation.
“This is natural and this is OK. We all experience conflict, nobody is immune. Expecting perfect families sets us up badly. Rather than see it as an ‘if’, try to see it as a ‘when’, so ‘when there is conflict, I will take a breather, I will try not to do harm, I will take responsibility for my part and I will try to repair.’ Confrontations are painful, but they happen to all of us and are what make us human. It is important for parents to make their best efforts to repair in a way that strengthens their relationships with their children, which is a precious opportunity to model how healthy relationships work.”
Speaking of children, among the greatest of all Christmas pressures in the overwhelming need to make sure they get everything they want; as if, in failing to do that, we will have failed to create a magical Christmas. This, truly, is nonsense. But nonsense we are all vulnerable to.
“Remember that your time and attention are the best gift you can give your child,” says Dr Coyne. “If you can, try to use the time you have at Christmas to invest in your relationship with them, no matter what their age. Show them how much you love them. Hug them, delight in them, play with them, read to them. Your love means more to them than any toy or gadget. If you’re not able to get everything on your child’s list, rest assured that the pain of disappointment is part and parcel of life and something they will only learn by experiencing it first-hand. Listen and acknowledge their feelings and try not to minimise their experience.”
Stella agrees. “There’s a nice little message going around on social media at the moment, of a teacher saying that she talks to her school-children every year after Christmas, and what they remember is the lovely day out ice-skating, the afternoon in the park or going to see a crib. They don’t much talk about their toys. That’s a reminder- your good vibes will make Christmas far more than the extravagant toy, or the perfect turkey, or the lights working or not working. The rest genuinely doesn’t matter. Your energy will set the tone, so try to enjoy it, and let things go. Don’t chase the perfect Christmas.”
The ‘good enough’ principle
We’ve got quite adept at applying the ‘good enough’ principle to most of our lives: we see the virtue in being good enough parents, good enough employees, good enough friends. But when it comes to Christmas, suddenly we want perfect. Frankly, it can only end in tears. “A ‘perfect’ Christmas is unattainable,” says Dr Coyne, “because humans aren’t perfect. Planning for a ‘good enough’ Christmas is more realistic.”
So be kind to yourself. “Because all parenting begins with you, nurturing your own happiness and developing compassion for yourself as a parent is important,” Dr Coyne continues. “Life is perfectly imperfect and our relationships with our children mirror that. Trying to be perfect is counter-productive and sends the wrong message out to children, as they get the message that performance is more important than quality time together.
Christmas is a good time to show children what it means to be human, with all its ups and downs. Accepting both good and bad feelings is part of life and helps children build resilience. If parents need support, there is no shame at all in reaching out for help.”
One piece of advice Stella proffers is: “Remember how messy Christmas is. It really is messy: all that wrapping paper, ribbons, packaging, presents that don’t yet have a place. That’s what Christmas looks like for most of us.” Also, “plan ahead for your escape. For those moments when it all gets too much, work out ‘what is my time-out? Do I go up to my room, out into the garden, down onto the street below,’ depending on whether you are in your own house or elsewhere. What do you do when you feel overwhelmed? Have that picked, take 10 to 15 minutes, and get out, rather than letting the feeling build and build.”
Another helpful tips, Stella says, is “Think of it as The Christmas Period. Take the pressure off the day itself. Look at it as several days rather than letting it turn into the one big event, because it’s not psychologically possible to live up to that. Do not put all your eggs in the basket of the 25th.”
Remember too that traditions are made to be broken. Do not give in to the tyranny of traditions that you no longer enjoy. Chuck them out, and make new traditions. Christmas isn’t set in stone.
A little bit of selfish is OK: You can do this any way you choose. It’s your Christmas, not something dreamt up by a marketing executive. Do what you want. And this can mean politely saying no to hours spent in the car, travelling miles so that you get to see all sides of the family on The Day.
Psychology lecturer and relationship coach Annie Lavin points out that “Christmas can be seen as a time of ‘togetherness’, so for anyone who is single, or coupled and wanting more, or unhappily accompanied, it can be a time to compare their reality against an idealised image. There is a heavily skewed image of everyone playing happy families – Irish jewellers claim almost half of people get engaged over the Christmas and New Year – which can lead to heightened emotions.”
Her advice? “Do not feed into the belief that being coupled is some kind of ‘better’ because it’s not always ‘better’.” And “it’s important to manage the expectations you may have of yourself and your partner. Try not to get caught up in the hype surrounding gift-giving and whether or not your partner will get a gift that ‘reflects’ their love for you. If you do that you are setting yourself up for a fall. Those of you who feel loved most by receiving gifts will probably need to be aware not everyone demonstrates love the same way.”
And remember that Christmas truly is very hard for some. As Dr Coyne says, “Christmas is a time of high emotion, but especially so for those suffering with grief, loneliness or mental health challenges. Because humans are deeply social beings, connecting with close others is crucial in maintaining our emotional well-being. Although it can be difficult for those struggling, try to reach out to close others for support.
“And for those who aren’t struggling, look around you and see if there is a precious opportunity to reach out to someone in need. It will not only make them feel worthy and special, but it will also boost your own happiness. In this way, materialism is replaced by love and compassion for one another, which is what Christmas should be all about.”
The truth is that the more society buys into ‘the most wonderful time of the year’, the harder it can be for those who feel unhappy or alone. Grief and loss can surface in unexpectedly intense ways at Christmas time for the bereaved and unhappy, who may not wish to embark on the usual round of festivities.
In such a case, Stella O’Malley suggests “Going to places where there are communities working together is good for the soul. Christmas carols, mass, helping the homeless. That might sound trite, but it does nurture you. It does take your mind off. Ask yourself, is there somewhere you can go where you can contribute? I think it’s a good idea to mark the day, but maybe in a different way?
“This is the darkest time of year, it’s no accident that we’ve been celebrating this period for thousands of years – it helps to get us through to springtime. So don’t ignore it. Do something nice for yourself, something with a bit of soul.
“Are there films that have meaning for you? A particular place that resonates with you? Books or poems you can read. Gather those things around you, tell yourself ‘this is a quiet Christmas, but I’ve gone deeper into my soul,’ and remember, next year can be very different.”
Make realistic plans for you
Leigh Kenny, Pieta House Regional Manager, says, “Christmas can be a hard time for a lot of individuals, even if they don’t suffer with depression, as sometimes it can illuminate the reality in people’s lives. It’s supposed to be a time of joy and cheer, all the family being together. However, somewhere in our lives there can be a real emptiness, we may have lost someone close to us and be without them over Christmas.”
She recommends: “To manage the pressure, try and make realistic plans for you, not for others. Try not to compare yourself with what you see on social media. Make a plan for each day that includes doing something you enjoy, for example, planning a Skype call with a loved one. Christmas time is full of festivities, try to keep a balanced food and alcohol intake as overindulging can sometimes have a negative effect on your mood and leave us feeling worse.”
For those of us who may not be struggling ourselves, but have family and friends who may be, she says, “respect that Christmas is an especially hard time and ensure that you support your loved ones. Help them to manage unrealistic expectations from others or even themselves. Check in on them with a phone call or text to let them know you are thinking of them. Being that one good listener can mean so much for that person.”
And now, armed with so many clever ways to take the sting out of Christmas, go forth and have a very happy one.
Pieta House provides services for suicide advice to people who are in suicidal crisis or who are self-harming. These professional services are free of charge. You can contact Pieta House 24/7 via the Freephone helpline on 1800 247 247, you can also text HELP to 51444 (standard message rates apply).
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