When I think about the holidays, things get complicated.
On the one hand, I love the glow of holiday lights, year-end gatherings, and the general festivities of the season. It is a time when many of us can finally take a breath and slow down enough to reflect, be thankful, and connect with those we cherish.
And that is a source of true joy.
On the other hand, the stretch of time from now until the start of the new year can feel like a series of emotional landmines. From revisiting unhealthy relationships to facing the triggers of past trauma and loss, it can be a time when we simply have to hold on to make it through.
In this second cycle of COVID-19 holidays, I’m anticipating how the anchorless, unscheduled weeks will challenge me to stay whole.
While many revel in the open-endedness of this time, it is difficult for me. When the world stops – businesses close, school is out of session, friends leave town – the things that ground me slip away.
And as old traditions and memories get displaced by the natural progression of life – death, divorce, distance – the things that were once a source of holiday cheer can become a gaping absence, a reminder of challenges from the past and of what used to be.
This time of year reminds me that some of the people and places that were once staples of my holiday traditions are mostly memories now. And while change can be good, coming face to face with these shifting realities can be painful.
Based on experiences I’ve endured and choices I’ve made, I no longer have a reliable “home base” during this season. And while I am fortunate to have many meaningful relationships in my life, I often feel isolated and alone during such a family-focused time of year.
Perhaps you’ve experienced a similar loss. The loss of a person, place, or prized tradition that doesn’t fit into your life now. Perhaps you’ve experienced emotions that contrast with the dazzling festivities and celebratory gatherings that expect you to put negative feelings aside.
As I’ve grown and healed, I’ve learned that the pressures to be merry and bright can be in direct conflict with the very real struggles that come up during this time.
Of course, I hope that all of us will find joy and abundance during the holidays. But I’ve found that I must honor my own experience, create space for my feelings, and find comfort that inevitably looks different from traditional visions of merriment.
I have to repeatedly tell myself that there are no shoulds this time of year – I should be traveling, I should be baking, I should be social, I should be smiling.
If I focus there, I become disconnected from myself and my experience. I lose sight of what is authentic and true. I risk missing the moments of love, kindness, and peace that do occur when I least expect them.
Over the last two years, we’ve all learned a lot. For me, the pandemic has been an opportunity to confront the triggers of loneliness baked into my being from long-ago trauma.
Those will likely get re-stimulated during the holidays. But to remain whole, I can neither blunt the big feelings nor allow the rigors of the holidays to separate me from myself.
Preparing for these coming weeks, I’ve thought about how I can best navigate the season as the person I hope to be for my daughters, friends, colleagues, and family.
If you face your own challenges during this time, I invite you to join me in these strategies:
» Make plans for self-care. Whether you are traveling or staying local, typical routines for mindfulness, exercise, or healthy eating may be unavailable. Focus on what feels right and prioritize your needs.
» Be clear about your boundaries. Limit time spent with people who push your buttons and practice the things you can say when you need a break or feel uncomfortable.
» Be kind to yourself and to others. You have no idea what anyone else might be carrying.
» Let the people you care about know what they mean to you.
» Manage expectations, manage expectations, manage expectations.
» Remember that this is all temporary. If time away from work or school feels like an eternity, trust that it will be over soon. If the downtime of this season feels like a gift, treasure the moments as they happen. Either way, the moments are fleeting. Through the ups and downs of the holidays, lean into the good and know that the worst will pass.
As life carries on, the complexities of our lives compound. I am always thankful to live in such a beautiful part of the world, surrounded by supportive colleagues, thoughtful friends, and a strong community.
But that doesn’t erase the reality that I share with many others: the holidays can be hard.
If there is sadness, disappointment, or hurt on the horizon, you are not alone. Since greetings of comfort and joy may not always ring true, I’m sending wishes of authenticity and resilience.
Because it is through honest connection – with ourselves and others – that we can find peace in this time. In that spirit, I wish you the happiest of holiday seasons.
— Alana Walczak is CEO of the nonprofit CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), a leader in developing programs and services that effectively treat child abuse and promote healing, as well as programs that help prevent abuse through family strengthening and support. Click here for more information, or call 805.965.2376. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.