It’s the time of year when every ad, every image, every song is about the joys of family, togetherness, and love—and it’s little wonder that those of us with unloving mothers and problematic families sometimes wish we could go to sleep the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and wake up on January 2nd. All of our unmet childhood needs seem to bubble up to the surface, and make us feel sad all over again.
Understanding the way you’re being triggered—that old feeling of exclusion and not belonging becomes so real that you can practically taste it—is an important first step. Even if you have a family of your own, it’s the ghosts of those holidays past that push into the present, and rekindle old feelings of pain and disappointment.
Is it just me or does anyone else feel jealous seeing those mother-daughter pairs going shopping together, having lunch, laughing? You’d think I’d be over it by now but apparently I’m not. I’m actually jealous.
The commercials make me cry because everyone seems so happy and content. The way families are supposed to be and mine never was. I hear people in my office talk about how excited they are to go home for holidays and see everyone and I feel like an alien from space. A total outsider.
It’s important to push the past out of the present with conscious awareness so you can enjoy the beauty of the season—the glow of the candles, the enjoyment of choosing gifts for those you love, the small pleasures of a bite of chocolate or the perfect hot cocoa, the twinkle of lights. So here are four strategies to keep you firmly grounded in the here and now.
1.Make a blessing bowl
I did this with my daughter many years ago and used to recommend it in workshops and it really helps you to appreciate the richness of your life in a new way. A glass bowl is best so you can see the “blessings” but any bowl will do. Buy some colored paper or use wrapping paper (you can write on the white side) and cut into strips or squares. Each day, write down something that’s brought you pleasure or made life more enjoyable and fold the paper up and put it in the bowl. You can do this alone, with a friend, your children or spouse. (Today, my blessing would be the view from my window.) Pick a day to open your blessings—it could be Christmas or New Year’s or any day you choose.
You’ll be surprised by the power of these words when they are unfolded and re-read en masse.
2.Do something new
What better way to feel less stuck than to do something you’ve never done before? This doesn’t require climbing Mount Everest; it just has to be something you’ve never done but always wanted to. It could be somewhere you’ve wanted to go, or a cuisine you’ve always wanted to experience. It could be yoga, learning to crochet, drawing, baking or polishing your nails blue. One daughter shared this experience of newness which took a different tack:
I’ve always had really long hair and growing up with a horribly critical mother and siblings who taunted me, I always hid behind my hair. It was my way of making myself invisible or trying to disappear. I kept it long as an adult until I turned thirty-five last year and I decided I was done hiding. I cut it short and streaked it. Now, you can see my face and me.
Choosing something new that has symbolic meaning can be very powerful too…Maybe try something you’ve never dared to do?
3.Sett a new goal
Looking into the future is a good way to move out of the reach of the past. The goal you set is less important than the intention and motivation you’re trying to harness. It could be in any realm of your life—in work, play, relationship. Here are some tips to help you, all drawn from research:
- Motivate yourself by asking a question which works way better than affirmations. (Affirmations, alas, don’t help.) So, ask yourself “Will I?” which will kickstart your efforts and get your brain in gear.
- Use “If/Then” thinking to plot and plan more effectively to reach your goal. Being a Pollyanna or your own cheerleader helps some but it’s way better to anticipate the pitfalls ahead. Practice thinking “If X happens, then I’ll do Y” so that a setback doesn’t stop you in your tracks.
- Write your goal down in as much detail as possible; research shows that writing actually helps motivation and effort. Make a list of your strengths and traits that potentially will allow you to reach your goal but also jot down those potential pitfalls like losing your nerve or getting discouraged. Use “If/Then” thinking when considering those pitfalls.
4. Practuce Self-Compassion
It’s the young you who’s hurting at the holidays and she needs your love and attention. One helpful exercise is to spend time with a photograph of yourself, ideally taken in childhood, and for you to really see that little girl. Feel empathy for her and the situation in which she finds herself as if you are a stranger looking at someone you don’t know; this is called cool processing of memories so that you don’t relive the pain of experience emotionally. Recognize her as worthy and deserving of love.
Doing nice things for yourself isn’t selfish but beneficial this time of year. If you don’t “spoil” you, who will? Remind yourself of your self-worth in small ways such as buying yourself flowers or treating yourself to something you really enjoy. Write the words ‘You are just fine” and “You are lovable” on post-its or pieces of paper and put them where you’ll see them.
The holidays are hard but they can be made easier with small acts of self-kindness. Really.
Photograph by Roberto Nickson. Copyright