We say ‘happy holidays’, but the truth is, for many of us the festive season is a less-than-perfect mixture of both delight and dread. I, for one, have had plenty of holiday misery over the years – from difficult divorces (first my parents, then later my own!) to deaths of loved ones to family feuds, and so on.
Let’s face it: when the holidays happen, there are many potential sources of stress and suffering. For some people it’s a time of great loneliness; for a whole host of reasons you may feel cut off, disconnected, or isolated from others.
For other people, it’s a time of grief – especially if a loved one is very sick or dying, or if it’s the first Christmas since they died. And for almost all of us there are the perennial stresses of buying gifts (what to get, how much to spend, will they like it or not?), challenging social events (difficult relatives, family arguments, drunken revellers), competing family demands (with whose family members, on which days, do you celebrate what?) or just grappling with the logistics of hosting a feast.
For most of us, there’s a pretty big gap between the ‘festive season’ that’s promoted in popular culture – happy, harmonious friends and families, enjoying a blissful gathering – and the one that we get to experience in real life. And this in itself easily leads to frustration and disappointment, on top of all those other forms of stress.
So, what can we do to make the most of the holiday season while handling the stress that inevitably goes with it? Well, to quote the author H.L. Mencken,
‘For every complex situation, there is an answer that is simple, clear and wrong’. Wise words, huh? So, I’m not going to even attempt a simple answer. There just isn’t one.
Instead, what I’m going to suggest is a simple practice; something that can help you cope when the going gets tough. What I have in mind is the practice of ‘compassion’ – which basically means, to acknowledge suffering and respond with kindness.
Throughout the holiday season, when life is hard, acknowledge it. Pause for a moment, and truly acknowledge your difficulties and disappointments, and all the unpleasant feelings that go with them. Acknowledge, openly and honestly that it’s painful.
And then respond to your pain with genuine warmth and kindness; treat yourself like you would treat someone you love, if they were in a similar situation. (For more on how to do this, read my previous blog, The No BS Guide To Self-Compassion
Of course, practicing self-compassion won’t magically make your holidays into ‘happy, happy, happy’! But it will help you to cope with the challenges better.
And at the same time, look for opportunities to be compassionate to others. After all, they too are likely to be struggling.
And if you can reach out to your loved ones during those difficult times, and be there for them in a kind and supportive way, one of the greatest gifts you can ever give. As the ancient philosopher Philo put it: ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’