Therapists know the weeks between Mid-November and January 2nd to be one ginormous suck-fest. Pumpkin Spice makes its appearance and we start hearing people’s real holiday feelings:
“This is my first holiday since my divorce, I don’t know how I’m going to survive it.”
“I look back on this last year and have no idea what I even accomplished.”
“San Francisco gets so empty on Christmas. It reminds me that my family is far away, and that I moved here to get away from them.”
“On Thanksgiving my parents always ask about my dating life, and I dread that conversation.”
“I feel like I’m faking my way through this whole month.”
And everyone seems to believe that they’re the only ones with these kinds of feelings.
I get it. I have those Facebook friends too, the ones with literally 2.5 children (anyone who can’t yet wipe their own butt is half a person) that I’ve watched tromp out to the pumpkin patch, baste a perfectly golden-brown turkey, make the season’s first hot cocoa, and now send out Christmas cards with a photo from that one half-second when the kids were all looking straight at the camera that gives the illusion of endless days of cooperative board games. I also have friends who are not living the heteronormative American dream who still seem to experience the holidays as love and togetherness with their chosen families. I’m happy for them, but scrolling through my feed can leave me feeling lonely and defective.
We are bombarded with images of love and happy consumerism from all angles: holiday music blasts at the Powell BART station, billboards show families balancing a thousand shopping bags and laughing together, and our own families may start to pressure us (“Obviously you’ll be buying that $600 flight home to be with us because we’re a happy family, RIGHT HONEY?!”). But, having listened to people through six holiday seasons as a therapist, and having lived through 30-something of them as a human, I have a slightly different sentiment when I see those first gold-toned leaves: “Here we go.”
Here we go with the budgeting – six family members and five close friends and you have about $12 to spend on gifts. Everyone will know how much you’re not making it.
Here we go with the deep loneliness.
Here we go with the pretending.
Here we go with the feeling that something is wrong with us.
Here we go with the sense that we failed another year.
Here we go with the reminders of loss — the loss of people and things we once had, and often, the mourning of what never was.
It’s almost cliche to write in a psychology magazine about unhappy holidays. We all know that for some people this is a hard season. But I would assert that the holidays are not just unhappy for some unlucky souls who go to therapy to analyze their miserable existence. I’ve come to believe that the holidays are unhappy for pretty much everyone. Here’s why:
All light has a shadow.
All joy comes with grief.
So, when our culture starts parading HAPPINESS AND JOY AND PEPPERMINT MOCHAS, humans with real lives (read: lives full of pain, as all lives are) can’t help but think about their own shadows— the family that is hurtful instead of loving, unstable housing, shattered relationships, kids at the other parent’s house for Christmas this year, your own childhood of shuffling back and forth between parents. And the more we allow ourselves to be aware of the shadows in our lives, the more defective we feel compared to the bright lights and smiles surrounding us.
Our culture insists that there’s something wrong if you’re not happy, especially around the holidays. But actually, there’s something wrong if you’re not whole. We cannot live our lives balancing on tiny sliver of the spectrum of human feelings, and yet when holidays roll around, that’s what we start to expect of ourselves. And we assume everyone else is warm and happy and not recounting their own failures and missed chances and heartache.
I want to suggest that this holiday season, you might give the gift of— pick your word— authenticity, honesty, vulnerability, reality— to your loved ones. Tell people who you think might need reassurance that your holidays, like your life, are a mix of good and bad, happy and sad, joy and shame, pride and uncertainty. Tell them what you don’t love about this season as well as what you do. Take your shadowy feelings and circumstances out of the therapy office and into the streets (or onto Facebook).
One of the best gifts we can give each other is permission to be fully human.