Nothing brings out the best and worst of us like this time of year. I don’t know a lot of people who get through the six weeks from December 1 to mid-January without a great deal of stress and anxiety, whether it’s about money, work, family, the increased workloads involved in balancing work + social event schedules + family, weather (especially for those of us in northern climes)… The amount of work most people I know put into trying to get to a point where they CAN relax over the holidays is phenomenal. When I still worked in IT, nothing crushed the heart and soul out of many employees like the workload of trying to clear a project schedule just to afford a couple of days off between Christmas and New Years, and that’s assuming that you have vacation time available, or work some place flexible enough to allow banking lieu time at this time of year. Not everyone has those luxuries.
Client schedules at this time of year become extremely unpredictable. Clients with benefits that renew at the beginning of the calendar year may be gleefully maxxing them out while they can, or they may find themselves eaten by other schedule requirements requiring them to rebook or miss appointments. A lot of seasonal sickness makes the rounds at this time of year, too. For psychotherapists like myself who may not be covered by most benefits, we find (unsurprisingly) that as much as our clients appreciate their work with us, they will often (understandably) choose to pay for Christmas rather than therapy, even when they (ruefully) admit they probably need the therapeutic support more now than other times through the year. We’re pretty understanding of that, though obviously it impacts OUR seasonal income as well. And honestly, there’s generally no good way for us to predict from one year to the next what any given holiday season is going to look like.
We CAN largely expect that many of our conversations with clients will revolve around how holiday stress impacts their relationships at home, or with larger family groups. Nothing seems to spark relational conflict or communications issues like a bucketload of conflicting priorities and obligations packed into the short window of Christmas.
Most therapists will tell you flat out, there’s no magic wand we can wave to take all of that strain away. The holidays really do bring out the best and worst in us. Google will helpfully provide pages and pages of links in response to typing “surviving the holidays” into the Search bar, but at the end of the day, I think the basics of Seasonal Survival Strategies look the same:
1. There should be some place that becomes your “safe space”, a respite from the Holiday Craziness that will, in fact, infect just about every aspect of your world for six weeks. (Even if you’re from a culture that doesn’t celebrate a major holiday at this time of year, if you’re reading this you’re probably living somewhere where most people around you seem to have almost literally Lost Their Minds). Whether this is a place in your home, your workplace, your car if you have one, or some place like a public library, make sure it’s a place you can get to on a regular basis. It should be some place you can keep mostly clear of the trappings and noise of the holidays, or at least have a higher degree of control over said trappings and noise.
2. Spend time in that safe space whenever you can. Make it a deliberate and mindful choice to “leave Christmas at the door” when you enter the space. The lists, the schedules, the noise, the chores, the negotiations, the frustrations… leave them outside. They’ll still be there when you come out (trust me) but for a few minutes or even an hour, give yourself the gift of Not-That-Chaos. It may seem like a luxury, an outrageous demand, to walk away from it all for a while, but honestly, this is nothing more than developing good boundaries, and valuing your own mental health in the mix of temporarily-extraordinary life. Everyone else will tell you that it’s important to be empathetic and compassionate to everyone else, because everyone else is stressed, too… but I can guarantee it will be damned hard to find energy to BE empathetic and hold compassion for others if you DON’T create some protected time and space to recharge yourself along the way.
3. Relax rigid expectations. This is a hard one for many of us, myself included, but absolutely powerful when we manage it. We all love the illusion of having control of situations and people; it brings us a sense of calm, or something. But honestly, this time of year is all about requiring some flexible adaptability. Herding cats never goes like we expect, and trying to muscle everyone’s obligations onto a singular rigid schedule that can then be skewed by weather, who-forgot-to-pack-that-Very-Important-Thing, sudden illness, unexpected upheavals in family politics, and any number of other factors over which we have ZERO control… this is the recipe for disaster we hand down between generations almost as faithfully as we’ve passed on great-grandmother Janette’s fruitcake recipe. If there is one gift I could give all my readers this holiday season, it’s this reminder: SHIT HAPPENS. You can wallow in your outcome attachment and get angry/disappointed/hurt/frustrated/upset, or you can roll with it and just “be there when you get there”. (I write that with a certain amount of personal irony as I am also trying to shore up scheduling with my mother that has my travel time contingent upon how long we need to roast a ham for Christmas Dinner, especially as I’m the one bringing said ham from KW to a city two hours away in GOOD driving conditions…)
4. Remember that “This too shall pass”. The work seems overloading and perpetual when you’re in it, and it never seems like family helps or supports you as much as you might want or hope it will; doubly so if your family life/relationship(s) is in any way already unsettled or contentious. But the holidays are a time-boxed event. January brings its own strains, but worry about those in January. Your job is to just survive December, and know that the holiday efforts will end, as they do every year, eventually.
Honestly, I look at a list like that and think to myself, “How hard can this be?”, and then I find myself, or at least a little part of the back of my brain, making high-pitched, hysterical giggling noises. And this is a GOOD year: other than Christmas Day at my mum’s since we’re the last of my family, I’m working through the bulk of the holidays. Excepting a small tea date this coming weekend and going out for NYE, I’m not hosting anything, I’m not doing any other travelling, I’m just looking after myself and my geriatric cat. And yet even then I can’t escape a degree of the holiday craziness. I still scrambled a weekend earlier this month to put up my tree and decorations at home; I still have to contend with cranky seasonal crowds almost everywhere I go. I’m definitely at the simple end of the seasonal spectrum, but I still vividly remember the days of travelling to my ex-husband’s family in Ottawa for multiple days, then having to squeeze my late dad in Orillia and my mum in Owen Sound somewhere else around the schedule, plus respective office Christmas events, our hosting massive NYE events, and probably one or the other of us working in between, trying to fit in the gift shopping and groceries and… and… and…
I know what it’s like to lose one’s Self amid the requirements of the Family Obligation World Tours. We lose the quiet moments in our own spaces, we lose the opportunity to just roll the schedule as we see fit, when everyone else’s timetables suddenly seem (or have) to take precedence. We lose sleep. We lose patience. We lose tempers. We lose perspective and equilibrium. I get it, I do. I don’t miss it, but I’m in a weirdly luxurious position of having as much time and space as I want for *my singular self*, and I recognize that. So much empathy for those who don’t have that same luxury. Time and time again, year after year, I find these are the four points that resonate most when talking with people trying to find a sane path through the messier parts of the season. We feel so much pressure to “be of good cheer” and wish “joy to the world” and all of that romantic holiday fiddle-faddle, but we can’t always get there from here when we’re viewing the season through the filters of our own personal stress and anxiety. We can’t even get to the relationship-management skills necessary to get through the season effectively when we’ve lost our personal footings, so I’m not even talking about those today.
Make some space, take some time, practice flexibility, and believe this will all be over in time.
However you celebrate the holidays, I hope you find a degree of peace in the process, moments where you remind yourself WHY you do what you do for these celebrations. Find love and joy where you can, rest when you need to, and please accept warm seasons greetings from my house to yours.
[Please note: the blog is on hiatus next week, as we prove that therapists can, and sometimes do, follow our own suggestions.]