Did you sit through Thanksgiving a little bit grateful but also a little bit sad? What if you are entering the holiday season in the midst of a crisis relating to your child’s chronic illness? Or a loved one’s catastrophic diagnosis, PTSD or something else that makes you totally unfit to enter into the spirit of the season?
That’s me at the moment. Thanksgiving has come and gone—even Nordy’s finally put up it’s Christmas decorations. But here I am not feeling at all Christmassy.
What to do?
Well first, if you’re me, you check to see if Christmassy is really a word and if you have spelled it correctly. Then you come up with rules to survive this season of joy, even though you feel like you haven’t been capable of joy in quite some time.
#1 Fake it
I was talking to my sister around Thanksgiving. She was asking about my son who spent a few weeks in the hospital before being transferred to an inpatient treatment program. When she asked how I was doing, I was too tired to be anything but honest.
Tired and sad. Empty. That’s what I told her.
Shocked, she claimed I sounded so good. She thought I was doing really well.
I told her I was faking it.
Sometimes when you act like you’re fine, happy even, you can trick your brain into believing it. If it works, you can scrabble together some of the energy you need. Even the simple act of smiling can trick your brain into thinking you’re happy.
This fake it ‘til you make it strategy is based, in some respects, on science (see, for instance, here or here), and I have found that it works pretty well to get through short term social engagements. Especially those I want to go to, but don’t feel like I have the emotional stores to make it through dry-eyed.
This was the strategy I used for Thanksgiving. Sad and tired notwithstanding, I wanted to go, I wanted it to be an occasion filled with love and laughter. So, I faked it. I forced smiles and laughs until I was really smiling and laughing. As I faked my own joy, I was able to openly connect with my friends and family. I was able to feel true delight at our friends’ engagement, real enjoyment in food lovingly prepared. I left feeling genuinely thankful for so much.
One caveat, you have to make sure it’s the happiness you are faking. It doesn’t work if you are just burying the sad you feel. You have to honor the sad and then make a point to enjoy your time with family and friends.
#2 Lower the bar
I’ve been working on lowing my bar for a while. I remember a few years ago I was asked how I was doing and instead of throwing out a reflexive, I’m fine, I thought for a second. I realized both of my children spoke to me and that makes a great day.
Not good. Great.
My expectations frame how I perceive my life. So, I pare it down to the barest essentials. Now, I don’t even need the kids to talk to me for it to be a great day. Today, it’s just that the kids are alive. And, given the fragility of life, I know it’s possible I may have to lower it even further.
“But, Gigi,” you say, “my bar is already on the ground, how can it get even lower?” And to that I say, “get a shovel.” It can always be lower.
#3 Re-evaluate your priorities
Just because you have always had a Christmas/Solstice/Hanukkah party at your house, doesn’t mean you have to have one this year. Just because your family loves your version of holiday feast, doesn’t mean you can’t just go to Red Tracton’s and let them do the cooking, serving and cleaning up. Take a look at your holiday traditions. Decide which ones have real meaning to you.
For me, it’s always been the tree.
I have a tree decorating ritual, complete with cookies and champagne.
It’s a little obsessive, I admit. After the tree is up, I string the lights, then wind the ribbon around it. Next, the angel goes on the top.
After that, the kids get their new ornament. We give them one each year, even now that they are 16 and 19. My mom did this as I grew up. When she finally sent them to me after I got married, I relished putting them onto my adult tree. It acknowledged my old traditions at the same time I began creating new ones with my husband.
She continued this tradition giving each grandchild an ornament every year. Now, we each have our own large collection. We take turns placing them on the tree until it’s full and my husband says we have too many and need to scale back. After that, I try to balance the aesthetic and fill in the holes with the red blown glass balls which my husband claims don’t fit. Then we stand back and admire our work.
That’s it. A perfect holiday for me. We have done this exactly the same for 18 years or so. I thought it was required to make our holiday perfect.
Until last year.
Last December I was barely functional. I was dealing with migraines, and vertigo and my own mental health issue. School carpool and my doctor’s appointments were almost the only reasons I would leave the house.
It was our first half-assed Christmas. The tree went up just a few days before Christmas, we didn’t even decorate it until Christmas Eve. No cookies, no champagne, no pictures. No ribbon, just lights. We picked out a few ornaments and didn’t bother with the rest. And even though there was plenty of room, the blown glass balls stayed in their box.
And I still had a perfect holiday.
It wasn’t the ritual or completed tree that was important. It was just us being in this together. That space of time we took to be with each other. I recently talked to the boy about last year’s half-assed tree and he remembered it as a great tree.
We will probably have a half-assed Christmas this year too. I’m redefining perfect in ways that have nothing to do with gifts, decorations and traditions, and instead revolve around space and time carved out to be grounded with those I love.
Sometimes half-assed is perfect, you just need to reevaluate your definition. Distill what you need to make meaning of this season. You will be amazed by how much you can let go.
#4 Give your time to your community
Time is always a precious commodity during the holiday season. The theory of relativity never seems to work in my favor in December. But if you spend your time helping others, it can ground you in the meaning of the season. And, if you’ve followed number 3 above, you will have lots more of it.
It’s sounds counter intuitive, but it is backed up by science. Volunteering has positive effects on the volunteers mental and physical health. (like this from Harvard). Do yourself a favor and take a shift at a local food pantry, organize a toy drive for foster kids, take time to play with some Head Start kids. Smile at strangers.
#5 Quit reading lists of how to survive the holidays.