A Christmas Tale of Woe

Note: I write about my parenting experiences not only to show by example how to honor deep feelings in children so that those feelings don’t morph into anxiety but also to illustrate what it looks like to tend to our own difficult feelings. If you don’t have children, I invite you to put yourself in the place of the child in the story and imagine it to be your own inner child. Whether or not you have children, you can read my parenting posts in both ways.

We woke up Christmas morning to a world sparkling in snow with luminescent angel-flakes shining in the morning sun. My body felt rested. My heart felt happy. I was ready to celebrate the day.

But while I was filled with gratitude and love, my boys weren’t so happy. The gifts that my husband and I had ordered a week before Christmas hadn’t arrived, so it was going to be a present-less Christmas morning. My older son, normally of sunny disposition, was walking glumly around the house. My younger son, still hopeful that his gift might arrive later that day, was a bit more sprightly. But when one of us in the family is down-in-the-dumps it effects all of us; such is the deal when we’re all highly sensitive, deeply bonded to each other, and, according to attachment theory, sharing a nervous system. So the mood in the house was anything but merry.

And I’m sad to say that I didn’t handle it very well… at least not initially.

Seeing my son’s mood was taking me down, and I found myself doing exactly what I advise people NOT to do when it comes to being with feelings:

  1. First I rationalized: “Well, you got so many present on Hannukah and most kids don’t get to celebrate both holidays so try to think about that.” That didn’t go over very well.
  2. Next I tried to redirect and orient toward gratitude: “Just think about how lucky we are. There are kids in Puerto Rico and all over the world who have nothing right now.” Again, that didn’t go over very well. Nobody wants to be talked out of their feelings, and offering perspective does nothing in the moment of one’s own sadness.
  3. Then I got annoyed and a bit shaming: “We have so much in our lives. Are you really going to spend Christmas moping around like this?”
  4. Finally I tried to shift the responsibility: “You both received presents from your grandparents that you chose to open for Hanukah instead of Christmas. You could have had four presents sitting under the tree right now.” He had a perfectly rational reason for why that argument didn’t hold water.
  5. (I almost used the classic parent bait-and-switch move – “Oh, no, you dropped your ice cream cone. Look at that cute doggie over there!” – and said something like, “Would it make you feel better to know that we’re thinking about going on a fun trip in the spring?”, but I managed to bite my tongue.

Of course, all of this just made things worse. What started as pure disappointment and sadness turned into whining and complaining. We could feel the tension building. Finally, taking a deep breath and recognizing the error and futility of my ways, I dropped all of the rationalizing, justifying, and redirecting and instead dropped into the feelings with him. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart. I know you’re so sad and disappointed, and of course you are. It’s Christmas morning and you have no presents to open. We’re sitting here around an empty tree and it’s sad and disappointing.” I could feel the energy shift in the room. I walked over to him and rubbed his back, sending love into his being. Without trying to shift him out of his sadness, the tension lifted and he was given room to just feel his feelings. Sadness took over the room. He said so clearly and from the heart, “We always open presents Christmas morning. I’m just sad.”

“Of course you are, love. Of course you’re sad.”

We’re sitting in sadness now, I thought. We’re letting sadness be a part of this Christmas morning. It’s 9am and we have an entire day to be together and have another experience, but right now, on this Christmas morning, we feel sad. And it’s okay. Once we stop fighting it, it’s okay. It’s fascinating and somewhat mind-boggling to me that I can so easily hold space for the difficult feelings of my clients, friends, and even myself, but when my husband or sons are struggling I sometimes revert to some deeply engrained or culturally learned habit of trying to talk them out of their feelings.

And then, somehow, it became more than okay; it became beautiful. My thirteen-year old son, big and teenagey and trying to figure out how to individuate, came over to me and we sat together on the couch for almost an hour. I massaged his head and we talked a bit about where we were last year on Christmas, but mostly we just sat together in silence, in the space of pure love and contentment that has lived between us from the day he was born. Once in a while he would say, “Why didn’t my train arrive?” and I would put my hand on his chest and invite him to breathe into the sadness instead of the question. It was the sweetest part of our day, and while he may not have consciously registered it as a gift, hopefully on some level he knew that it was. It was certainly a gift for me.

The miracle of letting ourselves feel our feelings is that they eventually move through us. Like sun to fog on a cold morning, once we breathed the warmth of acceptance into the difficult feelings they started to dissipate. By 10:30am, the energy was a bit lighter. By noon, we were laughing. And by 1pm as we stood with about a hundred people at the Muslim-Jewish alliance and organized ourselves into groups to distribute gifts to the local fire departments and nursing homes and prepare to offer dinner at the homeless shelter, the mood had shifted completely. A woeful morning turned into a delightful day, and maybe he learned, yet again, one of the most important lessons of life: that feelings are manageable, and that the more we allow ourselves to feel them completely, the faster they move through us. Or maybe it’s me that needed to learn that lesson again. How the learning never ends…

38 comments to A Christmas Tale of Woe

  • Stacey

    I bought the book “the road less travelled” and I practically read all of it today. The bit that stood out to me was that he said in a section of the book that most people confuse Cathecting with love. I’m assuming cathecting is the feelings that myself and others think love should be. I don’t know why I’m having such a hard time believing that love isn’t all feelings and that you don’t feel it all the time, and that at some point the feelings do go away once you merge as one. I just can’t seem to shake the thought that love is all feelings and you know you love someone if you feel it. That’s my biggest struggle. Deep down I believe I love him but when I start to act on it again there’s a voice in the back of my head saying “you are lying to yourself and pretending” and then that brings me back to worrying

    • Kyle

      Hi Stacey,

      I just wanted to let you know, I’ve been there. I’ve had that voice murmuring in my ear that I’m a liar, a fake, a pretender every time I tried to take a step toward love and do something loving for my man. It’s hard, it’s painful, it sucks, but it’s the fear talking. It really is. Don’t give up, keep trying, and be gentle with yourself. It’s okay to feel lost and it’s okay to make slow progress. Compassion is your best friend. You got this.

  • Hi Sheryl,
    So beautiful and rich. I can relate to it all. Especially going through the ‘what not to do’ when it comes to being with feelings and finally finding a resting place to be with the feelings.
    Thank you for your insight and honesty.
    Always so good to read your work,
    Julie

  • Brittany

    So beautiful, Sheryl. Thank you for sharing. I was just feeling curious the other day about your sons. I have read almost all of your blog posts and there were many that included them when they were younger, but not as many as they’ve gotten older. I’m curious I suppose about the transition into adolescence in the context of parenting and relating to feelings and transitions, for me to reflect on with my own self-reparenting. I’m grateful for your blog this week. <3

  • Gemma

    Sheryl, I love your honesty. I believe that by being honest with each other, we will eventually understand and accept the reality and beauty of life rather than the filtered version posted on social media in competition with others. Your Christmas day sounds perfectly normal. Thank you xxx

    • Thank you, Gemma, and yes we must be honest about the reality of being human where the only perfection found is in the imperfections. It was, indeed, a lovely day :).

  • Magdalena

    Thank you Sheryl for sharing your story. I am grateful to hear we all make mistakes and we can learn so much from them. Your attitude reminded me of Naomi Aldort’s S.A.L.V.E. formula. I suppose you know her parenting books. So whenever a situation like the one you described above makes me go into the programmed attitude I use SALVE and am amazed how simply and beautifully the situation can be approached. Thank you for everything you do and share. It’s so enriching.

  • Linda

    Beautiful as always. I love to read about your parenting. I’m hoping to absorb as much wisdom as possible as I’m so looking forward to being a mother someday.

  • Brooke

    Omg I nearly cried because I’ve never been taught or shown how to be with my feelings. People always try to rationalize and talk me out of my feelings. My boyfriend is one of those people a lot. He grew up in a family where they don’t really talk about emotions much, and it’s water off a ducks back. So when I’m highly anxious or upset, he often makes it worse sometimes. He’ll try and talk me out of it or rationalize out of it, or then get impatient and can’t deal with it anymore. I don’t know why I’m saying this but yeah.

    • Very few people have been taught or modeled how to be with feelings. I’m glad the article helped. Perhaps show this article to your boyfriend? It’s never too late to learn.

  • Brent

    Thank you for sharing this story Sheryl.

    I’ll become a father in July this year for the very first time. I’ve been through ridiculous relationship anxiety and have made it out the other side to a wonderful relationship where we are now expecting a child! With our awareness of transitions my wife and I have been really open with sharing our fears and anxieties relating to this change.

    On a recent evening i shared that the thought of having children made me very much aware of my own mortality. The thought of my own death made me scared, made me feel such immense sadness (as it has since i was only a few years old). I sat quietly and somberly through dinner thinking about what nothingness awaits me at the end. Then with a glimmer of hope i came to realise that our child will be the greatest gift i can give to the world and that i will live on in them, that we will live on in our children! We talked about how they will (hopefully) outlive us, that we may never even get to meet our grandchildren!

    It was a very powerful and healing moment where i caught a glimpse of the meaning of life, where my wife and i were sitting there across from one another both in tears, both in sadness and fear. Knowing that was okay to be sad, it was okay to not know a way out of the feeling. I didn’t need to escape the feeling, i needed to feel the feeling.

    The love i have for myself and my wife has only grown since i stopped trying to run away from my feelings…. it’s a continual process with many layers, but life really is beautiful when we allow our natural ebb and flow to occur without guilt or judgement.

    I’m so grateful to have found your words Sheryl, sending big love your way!

  • Jen

    I love how your sense of humility is so natural.After all,you’re a well seasoned therapist and all!! Nothing like family to bring the lessons home.I so appreciate how you walk your talk Sheryl-delightful article of being with discomfort,surviving it and most of all,contributing to the larger community.(and it’s so unbelievable that your sons are “so old” now!

    Love,
    Jen

    • Thank you, Jen. I can’t believe how old they are, either! When I started this blog Everest was only five years old – such a little guy – and now he’s a young man. Amazing…

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl,
    As per usual so beautiful to hear your raw honesty and imperfections. I congratulate you for
    Being aware and taking note. As you know I didnt get the gift of becoming a mother in this life time, but I mothered the most beautiful little souls over the last 9 yearrs, as an educator. I did fall into that habit of saying to the children, to stop crying if they missed their mums. Its so healthy to cry and feel all of our feelings. I was so lucky and blessed to have had the experiences, I hold on to those memories. Your a wonderful and caring woman, wife and Mother. Highly sensitives are intuned with our mistakes, maybe too much, its a gift to be able to recognise it and change the way we approach things in such a way children can learn from us, by feeling our feelings and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. I am getting better at allowing myself to be vulnerable infront of family and friends,colleagues. I now work in a skin cancer clinic as a receptionist and I feel optimistic that I will enjoy this next chapter of my life. 🤗🤗😘🙏❤️

    • Dear Angela: I have no doubt that you touched hundreds of young lives in your career as a teacher, and I have no doubt that you will touch hundreds more as receptionist. Thank you for sharing your light. xoxo

  • Jenna

    I needed to be reminded of this today too 🙂 Just beautiful. Thank you xxxxx

  • Bee

    I have the break free course but I am struggling to login, not sure if I have forgotten my login or password as it was about a year ago I purchased but having a tough time with my thoughts lately so feel like I need to read/work through it. How do I go about getting login details?

  • Sarah

    Hi Sheryl, wonderful writing. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking others (in this case you) have it perfectly together and always respond in the most loving of ways naturally and immediately. Thank you for your honesty. Blessings xoxo

  • Genevie

    I’m new to this site and I have been reading a lot of the blogs the last couple of days. Can I just ask one question. I see a lot of people saying love is not a feeling etc, if that is the case, then how are we supposed to know if we love our other half? I tell myself that love is not a feeling, and when I try to put that to the back of mind and continue to be loving towards my partner I get a voice saying “you are just pretending you love him, you are trying to ignore the truth” that little voice is becoming really annoying because I want to be loving with my partner but I can’t shift these thoughts and this tight chest feeling. Just makes me want to cry. I had the feelings at the beginning for the first 1/2 months, he broke up with me, some hurtful things were said, we got back together and then all the thoughts appeared.. there are no red flags in our relationship. And despite all these thoughts, I see my future with him and there’s nobody else I want my future with. Could you perhaps do a blog on how those of us that really struggle with our old beliefs of love can learn to believe what love really is? I don’t want to lose this amazing man in my life.

    • Kathy

      If it helps Genevie I was in the exact same place you are in a couple of years ago with my current partner. I felt so debilitated by my own thoughts that I felt like I was on the edge of a panic attack and actually sought out a counselor to talk to. I can say that after two years I’m still struggling with those same thoughts but they don’t knock the wind out of me the way that they used to. There really was not one particular blog post or anything that helped me, I’ve read most of the posts on this site and some I needed to read a couple of times to really understand them. But what helped me the most was just time and grace. I had to combat my old beliefs about love with loving actions (I think that’s what they mean when they say love is not a feeling but an action). I admit that it felt a lot like pretending in the beginning because we are so used to our emotions driving our actions and not our actions driving our emotions. Over time these actions felt less robotic and forced and more natural. It doesn’t happen all the time or every time but once in a while, when I’m totally in my head about it, I get a little bit of clarity and a glimmer of that “loving feeling” happens. So give yourself a little break and know that you will have these thoughts probably more than you would like but they don’t mean that you’re pretending, they mean that there’s a part of you that needs to heal (especially if a breakup precipitated those thoughts) and that you’re still learning.

      Also Sheryl has a few articles on MindBodyGreen.com that helped me if you want to check them out. This one in particular is good. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-21222/38-hard-truths-about-relationships.html

      • Genevie

        Thank you for your comment Kathy, I’ve just been starting to feel at a loss, starting to feel that I am not sure how much more I can take of this. Sometimes I feel like I just want to scream “I don’t love you” because it’s all trapped in my head, sometimes I feel like th only solution I have is to end things. But I don’t do either of those things because it’s not what I want. Ever since I was little I thought I would know when I loved someone because I would “feel” it. I’m just having a very very hard time accepting that what I thought was love, is not actually real love. It just seems really hard for my head to accept this. I didn’t have all this thoughts in my previous relationships but at the same time I never pictured myself spending my life with them unlike I do with my boyfriend now. I want my life with him, there is not anybody else I want. When I try to accept the thoughts and move towards loving actions this voice saying “you are just pretending to love him, stop being mean” keeps creeping in and it’s hard. I don’t like feeling like I’m lying to him. Even through all this though, I don’t want to lose him. I’ve been having all these thoughts since we got back together over a year and a half ago, I’ve had the odd days/weeks and months where I haven’t had troubling thoughts but when they come back they come back more powerful. I’m just scared that this isn’t relationship anxiety and that the truth is I don’t love him. I don’t think I’ve ever loved someone before so it’s all new and confusing and hard. I just know I want to be with him despite all of this.

        • Kathy

          I’m totally there with you, and I won’t pretend like I don’t revert back into those thoughts (especially if we get into a fight). But your thoughts don’t control you and just because you’ve thought it does not necessarily make it so It sounds like through all the negative internal chatter you are still holding firm to staying together which is great. But barring any red flags it’s worth the work and the frustration because you are an imperfect person who is learning how to love. I think you probably hit the nail on the head when you said that perhaps you’ve never loved someone before, I feel the same way. And even then, having loved before is totally different from how you love him so in a way you kind of start the learning process over when you endeavor to love anyone new. I’m sending you good vibes, I know what it’s like to be in that place and I really think if you give yourself a little time to find what works for you you’ll find your way through this.

          • Genevie

            Yeah I don’t want to leave him, despite all these thoughts I still want to be with him. I don’t want to be with anybody else. We don’t have any red flags, we get on so well, he is my best friend. I think if there was red flags for example, abuse, cheating, or anything like that then I personally don’t think I would stay. But he is so so good to me, he treats me so well in a way I’ve never been treated before, I am so lucky to have him and that’s why this is so upsetting because he is amazing.. yeah maybe I haven’t ever loved a man before, all I know is he is the only person I have thought about having a future with. Putting all these thoughts aside, I can see us in our own home together which will be soon as we have just bought somewhere, I can see him being the father of our children, I can see myself walking down the aisle to him. There’s nobody else I’ve ever wanted all of this with.. how did you overcome the feeling of lying? I don’t like feeling like I’m pretending to love him, for some reason that thought feels even worse than all the others. I want to love him. So when I’m acting loving to him and telling him I love him, it’s so hard the voice in my head saying that I am just pretending.. I’ve just started reading the book “recipes to a perfect marriage” at the minute I don’t see how it’s helping as she’s talking about not loving the person she married. But I am assuming it will go into that properly sometime into the book otherwise Sheryl would joy of recommended it to be read.

  • Kathy

    It’s interesting, your story reminds me of that scene in the movie “Inside Out”. Sadness is comforting Bing Bong, the imaginary friend, by letting him cry and talk about what is making him sad, while Joy keeps trying to make him feel better, essentially talking him out of his feelings. Talking this out I feel like I sound like a child but I was actually very moved and impressed by that scene because I think it illustrates in a way how our instinct is to combat sadness with forced happiness instead of just learning to sit in the sadness and let it move over you.

    I’m kind of comforted that you have moments like these also, it’s a really hard habit to break but it’s nice to know that you can have the moments where you falter and still be able to come out on the other side and learn from it. Awesome post!

  • Genevie

    When I start saying to myself “right love is not something that you feel, it is a choice and I choose to love my partner” I then start to feel like I’m lying to myself and that I am just trying to convince myself that I love him. Is this lying to myself or to the fear? Could this be a case that I just don’t love him? 🙁 I so badly want to love him. He is the only person I want to spend th rest of my life with and build a happy life with. I just feel bad for him and feel like I’m wasting/ruining his life? Any help at all please

  • Bee

    on your break free course is there a section that addresses when you feel like you are lying to yourself when you are trying to act on love?

  • Sandy

    Dear Sheryl ,

    I have just order the book when love meets fear . Is this something that you suggest for relationship anxiety and fear ??

    Thank you for being so positive about everything !!