Loving Yourself Well When the Holidays Are Hard

November 29, 2023

Reader, I must tell you, it is difficult to convey the feelings under the broiler of my heart. And yet, I am going to try. Here I sit, in my kitchen with members of my family milling about. Thanksgiving break has begun, and there is already stuff everywhere. My mind has been cluttered enough, and now the external reflects the chaos, too.

Small pockets of my soul feel peaceful. I am lucky. I have my health, a home, a loving husband and three healthy kids, friends, security, and I am safe. Just these facts make me wealthier than a great percentage of the world. Even limited awareness of current events will shine a light on the depth of despair that plagues humanity. So, it’s important to me to be clear here: so much of others’ suffering far eclipses my own. That’s part of why this is so hard to write.

Moments That Grip Us

The calamity my family faces is rooted in brain health disorders. For 26 years, my sister has been afflicted with devastating and destructive patterns of behavior. The core of who she is, beneath the rubble of distorted thought patterns, debilitating anxiety, and explosive lacking in emotional regulation, is a kind, loving, intelligent, resilient, generous, compassionate and thoughtful person. Sometimes, I get to spend time with that version of her. Those moments grip my heart, infuse me with hope, and even make me feel like part of me I long ago buried has a new lease on life.

But, almost like clockwork, the other shoe eventually drops. I have become accustomed to bracing myself, not allowing my hope to get too strong, and building a fortress around my heart so as not to melt into a puddle of despair when that shoe comes down. Over time, I’ve developed a range of skills to cope, draw boundaries, communicate, and strengthen my compassion and awareness. Knowing what I know and having the experience I do, I can assure you: mental health disorders are cruel, unusual, and persistent punishment, to the person afflicted and all those who love them.

Impossible Feats

This reality makes the holidays an especially challenging time of year for my family. To put it in its most simple form– my mom is heartbroken, my dad is subdued, and my sister is exasperated. I guess maybe we are all of those things (and so much more)…depending on what moment you catch us in. I feel a deep-seated pressure to protect the family I am raising with my husband. And, to somehow make everything alright again for the family I grew up in. It feels like an impossible feat.

Maybe this isn’t quite your story, yet something in your life makes you feel stuck in a vortex with no way out, too. Perhaps when the holidays roll around, peace and joy and love and light aren’t the sensations that get triggered inside of you. Instead, maybe you hurt. And not the hurt that is equivalent to a nagging paper cut. The hurt that feels more like a deep, throbbing, untouchable pain. While others around you buzz about, making plans with friends and family, caught up in the magic of the season, the life drains out of you. Suddenly you feel like a shell of a person, floating about the world masquerading as a human.

This feeling—it’s like being held underwater, goggles on, forced to look around at the dark, murky, mixed-up surroundings you’re in. The sediment never really clears. So, you just pray you can hold your breath a little longer, and break through the surface sooner rather than later. I don’t even have to tell you—it really sucks.

Embracing What Makes Us Different

So, I want you to know you’re not alone. This week, I’ve been thinking of the island of misfit toys. Are you familiar? It’s where Rudolph goes after being ex-communicated for his blinking red nose. He meets characters like Hermey the elf who wants to be a dentist and Yukon Cornelius – the oddball ice climber. At first, the viewer senses the dense cloud of sadness settled on top of these ostracized individuals. But when they band together and start to embrace what makes them different…possibilities open up.

The truest lesson I’ve learned within this story of my life is that the one and only thing I have control over is myself. As much as I wish I could rewrite the stars for so many of my loved ones and make things “better” for them, I’ve realized in more ways than one…that just isn’t realistic. This awareness, at my lowest, makes me want nothing more than to disappear. But when I am standing on a bit more solid ground, there’s a freedom in that knowing.

Five Tips to Make it Through the Holidays

Here, I’d like to offer five tips to make it through the holidays when the holidays can feel like hell:

  1. Love yourself well. You’re trying. This is hard, and it doesn’t get easier when you shame yourself for what truly is out of your control. Sleep in if that’s what helps. Read a book, take yourself to the movies, run a bubble bath with candles burning, get a massage, take a walk, do something—anything—to give a little love to your heart.
  2. Set and clearly communicate boundaries before or regarding holiday events so you don’t feel so pressured to fake a smile or join in on something that just doesn’t sit right with you.
  3. Check in with that island of misfit toys…surround yourself with people you can be vulnerable with and who make you feel good about being exactly who you are.
  4. Whatever plans you do make—you don’t have to feel guilty for celebrating. While your heart breaks for the unfortunate circumstances you may find yourself in, you also know you have the choice to focus on what does lift you up, like music you listen to, an outfit you love, or maybe the food you look forward to around this time of year.
  5. Try to stay grounded in the present. Take everything one moment, one breath, one step at a time, and trust that you’ll instinctively know what the next right thing is when it presents itself to you. Remember, this isn’t your first rodeo, and you’ll get through it, I promise.

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