Yesterday, my husband explained to me that I am not a “joiner.” This was his response when I asked very sincerely, “Wait, am I a Scrooge? Am I Bah-humbugging all over my friends’ and family’s holiday cheer?”. Yes, he immediately responded, then modified his response to something a bit more palatable – hence the “not a joiner” explanation.
However it’s spun by my husband, here’s the deal: I am not a big fan of the holiday season. I’ll gladly embrace the pretty lights and tasty beverages and coziness and good cheer, but their attachment to a collective fixed point on our calendar is not worth the unnecessary additional stress that accompanies them. Really, those things are available to us at any time, if we want them.
Do We Really Love This As Much As We Claim To?
What’s challenging about this season is the very real stress, isolation, and pain that accompanies the season for so many, but goes undiscussed, is dismissed, or is ignored much of the time. I’ve been a therapist for a long time, and the general theme in the therapy room from November 1st – January 2nd is “How do I handle this really stressful time, pretend I’m down to participate, and present with a good attitude while I’m really nursing an ulcer, building up credit card debt, and having small panic attacks two to three times a week?”. This is also true of the conversations I have with my friends about holiday time. I’d estimate that, for every ten people I have holiday-related conversations with, there’s only one who truly enjoys all aspects of holiday-ing. Four are in survival mode, three are on pins and needles, two are on the verge of giving the whole thing up completely (and a partridge in a pear treeeeeeeee!).
The basic gist is this: Very few of us are really into all the ins and outs of this thing we call the holidays. We’re all just pretending we are because everybody else is also pretending to be. I humbly submit to you all that maybe we should just stop doing that.
Social Media Is A Big Fat Liar.
Social media outlets paint a pristine version of the holiday season. There’s a photo of your high school acquaintance with her five kids and husband, all in matching holiday gear, in a giant pile of perfectly wrapped gifts, claiming themselves #blessed. And here’s a beautifully set table abundant with food, with family members all gathered around it, and BONUS! Everyone is smiling broadly and seems to genuinely like everything about one another and have zero disagreements about how much to spend on one another, or who brought what to the dinner and how good it is or isn’t, or, say, climate change, or the current train wreck that is the political state of our country. Everything is so very, very smooth and easy.
We all know that life doesn’t look this way, and that for many of us, holiday family gatherings don’t look this way, either. But we see it in our feeds and still believe, against all the odds, that everyone else has somehow figured out how to have the perfect holiday experience, and that we can do it, too, if we just try hard enough. And when we don’t (and many of us don’t), we feel like we’ve failed somehow. Maybe we just aren’t joiners. But the problem is us, right? It must be – just look at Suzy’s perfectly curated hair, and children, and ham!
It’s Not About You..But Maybe It Should Be.
I say this a lot in my blog posts, and it applies here, too – it’s not you. Really, I promise. It’s not you. Nine out of ten people can’t be wrong. It’s. Not. You. It’s the expectation of fulfilling an experience that bears little resemblance to reality. We’re set up to fail because (if I may be so bold) the whole thing is a charade – under all the wrapping paper and tulle and sparkle, we’re all still humans, and humans are messy. And relating to one another healthily and authentically is hard. And doing so while expecting perfection is damn near impossible.
When we accept that the holiday season in itself is difficult, it gives us room to breathe and consider the possibility of making different choices. Can we dare to consider our own wants and needs, and maybe even extend some good cheer and compassion in our own direction? Can we make this whole situation, difficult for so many, a bit more reasonable for us? How?
First, let’s please do one another a favor and alleviate the pressure by no longer participating in the farce that we – and our lives – are perfect. Don’t post that staged photo, guys. I know there’s a screaming child underneath that tablecloth. The jig is up.
Instead, what if we start saying what’s really true for us? What would that look like? We can do this by recognizing what we really want and need this season, naming it, and saying it out loud to other people. This might look like the following:
“I appreciate you wanting to buy my daughter gifts, but the idea of her having one more toy cluttering up my living room literally makes me want to scream and collapse in a heap on the floor. Could you please not give her any gifts this season?”.
“The idea of getting together with one hundred people I don’t really know in a confined space with lots of noise activates my anxiety to a level that I’m not equipped to deal with right now. Can we get together in January, just the four of us?”.
“Somehow, miraculously, I’ve been unable to amass an extra $1000 to spend on items that my family members don’t need this year. Instead, I’m planning to visit with family, bring a plate of homemade cookies with me, and call it good.”
Or how about:
“Everyone in the country traveling on the exact same day actually seems like a really stupid idea. Like, maybe the worst idea, ever. I’m not up to it this year. How about I come visit you on literally any other day except this one?”.
“Hey guys! I’ve brought a puzzle with me and I’m going to go do it in the other room because I’m an introvert like half of the population and I need to take breaks from all this forced socializing. Nothing personal!”.
Any of the above are good examples of healthy boundary setting (plus a little of my own added snark for effect, but you get the point). And there are a million more.
I’m aware of how hard all of this is. There is pressure, guilt, and passive-aggression to contend with, and none of that is easy. I’ll speak more to that in next week’s blog, because taking care of our own guilty feelings when we set boundaries and/or speak our truth out loud is very tricky business.
This week, if you are someone that finds this season difficult, comfort yourself with the knowledge that this time of year is hard for many, for a wide array of reasons. You aren’t doing it wrong. If you identify a way that you can make it easier on yourself somehow, I encourage you to bravely say it out loud – you might even inspire someone else to speak up!