If you’re like most people, there’s probably an element of pain, dread and/or overwhelm as we enter the holiday season. The rush to consume, the pressure to feel joyful, and the expectation of experiencing perfect familial bliss set against a Normal Rockwell backdrop is enough to send any human being under a gray cloud. Add to that being a highly sensitive person that can veer toward anxiety or depression and the recipe for implosions or explosions is laid out on the holiday table alongside the turkey and cranberries.
Holidays, birthdays, and transitions are a set-up for disappointment and pain. Whenever we expect to feel one certain way (i.e. blissful, connected, happy), the other emotions inside clamor for attention until we break down in some form. We simply balk in the face of expectations. And the expectation itself for pure joy is, in a word, ridiculous. Why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to feel one way just because of a calendar date? We treat ourselves like robots that can turn on certain feelings and turn off others just because it’s “Thanksgiving” or “Christmas” or “my birthday.” Then, because we don’t honor it consciously, the inherent pain around holidays and transitions sneaks and sidles into psyche through the backdoor until we find ourselves picking a fight with our partner or crumbling into anxiety or depression.
It’s no secret that we all carry pain and heartbreak in some form, and why we try to deny it and present a picture-perfect life to others is beyond me. For some, it’s the pain of their own divorce that has shattered their intact family and sends themselves and their kids into pre-holiday stress, loneliness and overwhelm. For others, it’s the pain of their parents’ divorce that sends the now adult-children into separation and distance as they try to navigate through blended family stress. For others, it’s the heartbreak of a recent breakup. For still others, it’s the grief of having no family or partner at all with whom to celebrate. I could write on and on. We all have pain. Nobody is living the Hollywood, Father of the Bride dream where pain is airbrushed out to reveal only the perfect house with the perfect family and the perfect life. It simply does not exist.
The most challenging part of inviting pain to our holiday season is that we believe it shouldn’t be there. How can you send someone an invitation when you believe they shouldn’t even exist? We carry a fantasy about everyone else’s bliss (and social media surely doesn’t help in this regard), so that when pain in any form arises (disappointment, loneliness, frustration, sadness), the knee-jerk response is to kick it out the door with a doggy-bag of shame for the road. This sounds like: “What’s wrong with me?” “I should have it all together.” “I have no reason to feel sad.”
So the first key step is to make room for all of the feelings, both those that we label positive and those that we label negative. Sit down with your journal and allow yourself to write about how you’re feeling as the holidays approach. Invite your pain to the pre-holiday gathering. Scooch aside for disappointment. Pull the throne over for heartbreak. Write and write and then put your pen aside to allow your body’s pain to simmer up to heart and eyes. In other words, have a good, big, full-bodied cry.
Next, breathe into the pain and breathe out spaciousness (the first step of Tonglen). Then see if you can connect to the second step of Tonglen: Breathe into the pain of everyone else on the planet who is feeling lonely, sad, disappointed, overwhelmed, and heartbroken at this very moment, and breathe out love and connection. If you think you’re the only one having a hard time with the holidays, think again! In some strange and beautiful way, we’re all in this together, and when you can connect to the invisible web of heart-strands that connects us in pain and in beauty, something opens up inside.
Lastly, and hopefully arriving naturally on the wake of practicing Tonglen, connect to gratitude. For all of your pain and heartbreak, there are equal amounts of blessings for which you can feel grateful. The expectation around Thanksgiving is to connect to gratitude, which is a lovely intention, but unless we walk through the pain we won’t likely be able to connect to true, felt gratitude. We can easily rattle off the things for which we’re grateful in a rote list, but to open to the felt experience of gratitude requires that we walk through the muck and mud first. Still, whether you feel it or not, it’s helpful to write a gratitude list. Sometimes it’s the act of writing itself that opens up the pathways to authentic feeling.
Compassion, as always, is key, We start with self-compassion, which means bring loving attention to what is instead of what we think it should be, and from there we bring compassion to those in our closest circle, and then out into the world.
These articles may help you connect to holiday pain:
These articles may help you connect to gratitude:
Sending you all love and hugs this holiday season. Thank you for being on the journey with me.