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A Digital Permission Slip If The Holidays Feel Hard For You

A Digital Permission Slip If You Hate The Holidays

I was chatting to a good girlfriend of mine – a fellow trauma therapist – and the subject came up about how busy our practices (or, in my case – my boutique therapy center) are right now.

While the majority of the world seems to slow down and shift into hibernation mode once we hit December, phones are ringing and messages are ramping up for therapists.

And this isn’t a one-off. This isn’t aberrant.

A Digital Permission Slip If You Hate The Holidays

A Digital Permission Slip If The Holidays Feel Hard For You

I’ve been practicing therapy in Berkeley since 2013 and keeping track of the calls and emails I get every month since that time.

Inevitably, year after year, as I reflect on the trends, December is one of the busiest months of the year for me.

I say this not to celebrate busyness or to brag about my practice, but rather to illustrate a point that I imagine you may need to hear: the holidays are rough for many, many people. And that’s why, I personally believe, therapists get so busy around this time.

We talk a lot about holiday stress – the ramped-up social calendar, the added commitments and chores, the burden of airports, and delayed flights. And yes, all of this is true. 

But what we don’t often talk about is how particularly and specifically triggering the holiday season can be if you come from a relational trauma background, and/or if relationships between you and your family-of-origin (or your partner’s family-of-origin) are strained, estranged, and just plain painful to be around. 

It’s not uncommon, in these situations, for folks to spend the entire calendar year dreading the winter holidays. It’s not uncommon to hate the holidays.

If this sounds like you, if you’re currently experiencing a subtle but steady sense of dread here in the midst of the holiday season, I want to remind you of 9 important points that may help steady you through this time. 

Consider this post a digital permission slip of sorts if you’re struggling this holiday season.

9 Important Things To Remember If You Hate The Holidays

1) You get to dislike (or even hate) the holidays!

You’re not a scrooge, a Grinch, or a humbug if you don’t like the holiday season. Your dislike and discomfort with this time of the year is likely rooted in very valid reasons. There is no one right way to feel about this time of the year. Any way you feel about the holidays and this season is perfectly valid and more than okay. As much as possible, when you start to shame yourself, or if others start to “guilt you” for not liking the holidays more, please try to remember that your experience is valid no matter how it looks and you get to feel exactly how you feel about this time of year. Period.

2) You get to spend the holidays any darn way you please.

If you want to skip celebrating altogether, that’s fine and great. If you want to buy a tree and decorate it, send out cards to your best friends, that’s fine and great. If you want to pretend Christmas or Thanksgiving is just another day on the calendar with no special meaning, that’s fine and great. Part of the beauty of getting older is the fact that we have more agency and, usually, resources than we did as teens and children. That means you get to craft your life exactly as you would like it to be (within reason) and this means, too, that you can spend the holidays however you want. There is no one right way to be with this time of year. Think about what you need and want, and craft that regardless of what others are doing.

3) You don’t owe anyone anything during the holiday season.

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: a relationship with an adult child is a privilege, not a right. If you don’t feel comfortable spending the holidays with your parents and family-of-origin or in-laws, that’s okay! You truly don’t owe anyone anything in terms of how you spend your limited life energy and time. Of course, when we’re partnered and if we have children, there are other people and their feelings to consider so we may feel some constraints in ways when we balance what we need and want with what they need and want. This is, I think, relationship in a nutshell. So be curious what you can be flexible around versus what a true non-negotiable is for you and go from there.

4) The holidays are an amazing opportunity to reflect on and assert your boundaries.

As we get curious about how we want to spend the holidays, as we notice what we’re unwilling to do or who we are unwilling to spend time with, we’re practicing noticing our boundaries and asserting them both with ourselves and with others. As painful as it can feel to clarify that you don’t want to spend holidays anymore with your aging parents and to let them know that you won’t be making the trek home, this is valuable practice is noticing and asserting your personal boundaries – a foundation piece of robust mental health, I believe. And if you need support understanding what boundaries are and how you might begin articulating them, be sure to check out this piece I wrote several years back. 

5) The way the holidays feel this year, may not be the same way they feel next year, or the year after.

This may feel hard to imagine but if you are having a really tough time this holiday season, I would invite you to consider the possibility that, even while things feel hard now, they may not feel like this next year, or the year after. Just because the holidays have felt in the past and are, at present, painful, doesn’t mean they will always feel this way. I say this, not to make false promises that things will change or to convince you to have an experience other than what feels true to you, but rather to acknowledge the fact that we just never know what the future may hold and to invite the possibility that this time of year could feel different and better for you sometime in the future.

6) Plenty of people dislike and dread the holidays; you just may not know any IRL.

When you really dislike the holidays, when you feel alone in dreading them or like the only one of your friends who feels sick to their stomach heading back to your childhood home over the break, it’s easy to feel lonely and somehow odd or different that you are having this experience. But back to the point I made in my intro, therapists’ phones tend to ring pretty consistently this time of year and what I’ll also anecdotally add is that, having worked with hundreds of people over the last 10 years or so (and hearing from even more on my blog), many people dislike or dread the holidays. You just may not know any in real life. But take a look at the comment section of blogs like this or others centered around relational trauma and childhood trauma – many people dread and dislike the holidays. You are not alone in your experience. 

7) Family-centric holidays are complex and so are the attendant emotions.

Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and any other holiday from any faith that centers around and celebrates family tends to evoke complex feelings. You can both love the holidays and grieve them or hate them in ways. You can find comfort in the glow of a Christmas tree and delight in how your spouse makes holiday magic for your child and you can feel a painful ache recalling how your parents never did that for you. Your feelings about the holidays don’t have to be either/or, they can be both/and. They can, and most likely will be, complex, much like this time of year is.

8) You can change your relationship to the holidays if you want.

To the point I made in line item number 5, your experience of the holidays may not be fixed and certainly doesn’t have to be if you don’t want it to be. In other words, if holidays have historically felt quite painful and sad and you would like to experience something different this year, you have the choice and agency to create something different for yourself. Your history does not have to be your destiny, and your past experiences of this time of year can be re-written. So I would invite you to consider how you would like this holiday season to feel and what could support you in having a different experience of the holidays this year and onwards.

9) Self-care is paramount if you struggle at this time of year.

Most importantly though, as you navigate this holiday season and if this time of year feel painful for you, please make whatever choices you can to take care of yourself. It’s hard enough having painful feeling states, but when the rest of the world is seemingly chipper and full of holiday cheer and you feel alone in your painful experience, it is, I think, harder to bear. So please be kind to yourself in whatever way this looks – holding the boundaries you need, acknowledging or ignoring the season, re-writing your experience, and fundamentally, taking good care of your physical and mental health as best you can. If you need suggestions for added support right now, be sure to explore this post.

I wish your heart and mind ease and peace this holiday season. 

And I wish for you the understanding that, if you dislike, dread, or even hate the holidays, you’re not alone in your experience even though it may seem that way.

In fact, if you’d like to share your experience of the holiday season in the comments below, you may help someone else who is feeling lonely and other this holiday season. And I’d certainly love to hear from you, too.

Take very good care of yourself. 

Warmly, Annie

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  1. Mary on  

    Hi Annie,
    Another very helpful post! I last wrote after I read your post for women-all women thinking of having chldren, who are now pregnant, post-partum, or as in my case, very, very post-partum! As a human, a woman, a retired social worker, a wife, a mother, and a “first-generation” and a friend, I always find your writings to be wise and caring counsel.

    Can I ask you to think about a potential future topic? Having been on a journey with many others who have experienced childhood trauma from neglect/abuse and who have maintained a low contact or necessary superficial relationship with a parent, the difficulties faced when that parent becomes more dependent due to aging/medical issues are enormously complex. I see this frequently in people of all ages, and especially in women. Recovery from childhood wounds is never a straight line it seems, and there are such tender and often conflicted feelings even when a parent in that dynamic dies. Another potential topic, Annie!

    No pressure either! I will remain a faithful reader no matter the topic! Thank you again, Annie, for putting your mind, heart and soul into your writing…
    Warmly,
    Mary

  2. Belle on  

    I second Mary’s request above! This year my relationship with my 70 year old mother has moved from shallow to estranged, as she’s responded harshly to my loving a woman. I dread the thought of my mother’s health declining and the pressure I anticipate feeling if and when that happens.

  3. Kristen on  

    Thank you for this post. It’s perfect timing. I wish I had something more eloquent or inspirational to add but I’m still moving out of a very shutdown and depleted space so I fear I have little to offer but my thanks. Wishing everyone peace this season, and I third (is that even a verb?) Mary’s request.

  4. Annie on  

    Mary, Belle, and Kristen,

    I love how you each echoed Mary’s original desired topic and let me know what you would like to see my write about. I think that topic is so evocative and I would love to write something on it for you. It’s something I’m seeing increasingly with clients in my caseload and at my boutique therapy center here in Berkeley as Millennials and Gen-X’ers age and assume the position of the “sandwich generation.”

    I’ll start thinking about this and will plan to write something on it.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read my post, and also to engage with me and let me know what you would like to see. I’m grateful to you.

    Warmly, Annie

    • Elinore Patruski on  

      I had a very abusive childhood and I am old now. Tried to give my child everything I didn’t have, especially, unconditional love, but made mistakes too.

      • Annie on  

        Elinore,

        Doing our best doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes. I’m seeing that vividly as I raise my young daughter. Despite my desire to give her everything good in the world, sometimes I fail because I’m tired, crabby, and stressed with housework.

        We do the best we can and trust our children know that we love us even when we mess up.

        I’m sending you a big hug and all my very best.

        Warmly, Annie

  5. Nicky on  

    Thank you for this beautiful and timely post! I am sitting here on Christmas Eve, simultaneously feeling such love, joy and gratitufe for my family, yet sadness over the often distant and complicated relationship with my own aging parents. I often get a bit weepy this time of the year, yet can’t explain exactly why, and it feels in such stark contrast to how I think I ‘should’ be feeling. Added to that all the facebook posts of seemingly happy, harmonious families, and it just triggers a lot of painful feelings. Also, this time of year (for me) tends to be a time to gently close the door on the world, for reflection and soul-searching. Yet it often feels as if the world won’t let you slow down. It’s lovely to read your wise and reassuring words reminding us of the importance of self care, being true to ourselves and releasing the pressure to ‘perform’. Thank you!

    • Annie on  

      Ah, Nicky. I so get it. The holidays are such a complex time, aren’t they? The older I get, the more I personally do what I want and feel however I feel about them and hope that others who find this time of the year challenging in hard-to-pinpoint ways will do the same.

      I’m wishing you all my very best and want to thank you for taking the time to comment.

      Warmly, Annie

  6. Kay Summers on  

    Memories of how we were treated as children never goes away. Long ago I ‘left my family-of-origin’ to survive and thrive as an adult, which thankfully was the right decision Yet as I age and watch my daughter raise her family and enjoy her family I realize how very broken I remain (even after therapy). Is it true that some people never recover from a traumatic childhood foundation? Thank you for your wisdom Annie and the community. It helps to know others share similar life challenges.
    Godspeed,
    Kay

    • Annie on  

      Kay, I was so touched by your comment and moved by your question: Is it true that some people never recover from a traumatic childhood foundation?

      The answer to this could fill a book but, in my personal and professional experience, I don’t think that for those of us who come from traumatic and adverse early beginnings we ever fully “recover” or “get over” or “move on” from it. Rather, much like stretch marks that riddle the body from sudden weight gain or a pregnancy, the scars of early and averse childhoods become something we live with, that stay with us. The scars fade (like the vivid red of angry stretch marks do to white) over time, but they stay.

      Our security and faith in people and in the world may never equal what those raised with non-traumatic childhoods may experience, but it doesn’t mean we can’t heal. We may live with the scars, but they may not bother us quite so much as time progresses. But make no mistake: they don’t ever fully go away. We live with them. We accommodate for them. We get triggered by them from time to time. And what you’re naming is unique to those of us who come from trauma backgrounds: a kind of bittersweet feeling watching our own children have happier experiences than we did.

      Know that I’m sending you a big hug and I hope my words could clarify your question somewhat.

      Warmly, Annie

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