Three ways to use the holidays to heal and grow

IMG_0008As we descend into the darkest month of the year, we may notice ourselves bracing with closed fists and gritted teeth. For some, the cold and darkness keep us tucked away from the present moment. For others, the holidays bring a blizzard of emotional turmoil that is hard to understand. We are supposed to be joyous and celebratory; it can feel confusing and isolating to feel differently. It can feel embarrassing, even shameful, to dislike the holidays, especially when we don’t have a clear understanding of why they cause us distress. We may feel angry with ourselves that we are unable to enjoy them. We wonder what is wrong with us.

Truth be told, the holidays are rough for a lot of people. We as a culture don’t talk enough about this. It’s hard and sometimes shameful to admit.  Family is complicated and personal; it can be painful to have the spotlight shown on family dynamics. Old family dysfunctions that we can generally avoid suddenly take center stage as we reunite with one another. The holidays can also remind us our losses, whether an empty chair at dinner or a missing part of ourselves.

While the inclination may be to ignore difficult feelings, drowning them in eggnog or whatever our seasonal coping mechanism may be (shopping, eating, peppermint schnapps), we can instead use this season to grow, to incubate, and to heal. Here are some of the nurturing ways in which we can approach difficult holidays:

  1. Using the holidays to grieve.

Walking through the mall around the holidays may feel unbearable. That six-year-old girl sitting on Santa’s lap reminds us of the child we might have had if we hadn’t had an abortion six years ago. We wonder what sort of toys we would be buying her, what new rituals we would make as a family, had we chosen a different life path. We think about playing draidel together, or making Christmas tree ornaments out of Mason jar lids and glitter, just as our moms taught us to do so many years ago. These thoughts bombard our consciousness uninvited, and haunt us even when we plea for them to leave us alone.

Or maybe that six-year-old girl, smiling and laughing, her parents rejoicing in the magic she sees all around her, gnaws at a much older wound from our own childhoods. The sexual abuse we endured at that age enters our minds, and we realize that we were robbed of not only magic but also of safety. The thought of sitting on a stranger’s lap terrifies us. And even if it didn’t, there was nothing to ask of Santa because even at age six, nothing mattered. Even then we may have lost hope. And suddenly we resent this child. We wish we had had memories like hers—memories of innocence in a time when innocence is so quintessential. And we wish there was a family to go home to visit now, though we haven’t spoken to our abusive parent in years. Instead we are alone still, stung by the frostbite of these thoughts which never cease to appear each year.

The holidays highlight innumerable losses: divorces, lost pregnancies, lost childhoods due to abuse or neglect. Deaths in the family, estrangement from family, lack of family, family who seem stable on the outside but ignore who we are in those subtle ways that hurt so unbearably. We cannot change the ways in which the holidays bring these wounds up. However, we can use these experiences to allow ourselves to grieve—to allow ourselves to feel whatever we are feeling without trying to change it: sadness, anger, resentment, fear, loss. We can choose to give these wounds a voice by letting them be, just as they are. This is a complicated journey, and one that can require professional guidance as to prevent overwhelm or retraumitization, but is worth pursuing as part of the healing process.

2.  Allowing ourselves to hibernate.

Sometimes with the lack of light and warmth, it feels only natural to go inward during the winter—inward into our homes and inward into our own consciousness. All beings need to rest and recuperate; winter can offer some of that. Often shut away from spending time outdoors, we can turn to introspection and contemplation, to reflect on the year and set our goals and intentions for the future. We can enjoy our own company and the space we call home.

While some may not want to hide away for long periods of time, or at all if they struggle with depression or other emotional difficulties, for others it can be helpful to enjoy some of the inevitable alone time during the winter. We can get to know new parts of ourselves—spend time listening to different parts of our brains and hearts. Re-examine old thoughts and beliefs. Find refuge in solitude.

3. Keeping our hearts open to joy.

Even if we feel like scrooges during the holidays, we can ourselves to take in the positive moments; they may sustain us through the rest of the winter. While this may seem obvious, if we are in pain during the holidays, enjoying any part of them may feel invalidating to our experience; we may feel like we are ignoring our feelings or “selling out.” It is important to realize that nothing is black and white; if the holidays bring us mixed and complicated feelings, which they so often do, we can invite in the entire spectrum of our experience. We can make a seat at our dinner table for both pain and joy, understanding that not only is there room for both, but also that both need to be invited in, fed, and listened to.

Letting loose with our coworkers at the holiday party can be a much needed reset from the deadening routines we create together and can bring levity back into our working relationships (especially if done in ugly sweaters). The way the city lights up, trees and lampposts and houses glowing and twinkling against the snow, always reminds me of the resiliency and optimism of humans when they loose the light of the sun. Allowing ourselves to put on ice skates, or to eat special once-a-year things, or to decorate our homes with treasures from our grandparents, can help to balance out the difficult feelings. It’s ok to have sadness around the holidays and to also enjoy parts of them. Giving ourselves permission to indulge in these joys can be hugely nourishing.

If we are ready, welcoming in all of the emotions that arise during the holidays—grief, solitude, joy, and others—can help us to make peace with the inevitable tornados of the human experience. It is when we hide from them, when we shut them away, that we find ourselves suffering more.

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Rachael Uris, MA, LPC is the owner of Atacama Counseling, LLC, offering sex therapy as well as individual and couple's counseling for issues surrounding sexuality, love, and pregnancy. All services are located in downtown Boulder, Colorado, and are provided in English and Spanish.
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