• Sarah Murphy, LCSW

Being True to Yourself During the Holidays

I used to run a support group for women with difficult mothers. And believe me, their mothers were difficult -- and much worse. Because they had been force-fed the myth that everyone has a nurturing mother, it was harder for them to admit they did not. Hallmark and FTD commercials left them feeling like everyone else sent their mothers cards and flowers throughout the year; Madison Avenue perpetuated a myth that supported sales, not a universal experience. But, when you see these ads all your life, it’s hard to admit your mother locked you in a closet when you came home late from school or told you Santa would hate you if you didn’t run to the store to get her cigarettes before your father came home.

How could this happen to you when everyone else enjoyed Duncan Hines brownies with their sweet-natured mother after school? It’s a double whammy of unmet expectations and suffering; you did not have the kind of mother you deserved AND you fell short of the cultural norm. So, there must be something wrong with you, right? Wrong. Your experience was not good, fair, or just, AND you were made to feel “less than” because advertisements lied to you. Not everyone has a nice mother. It’s a fact. But facts don’t sell flowers, cards, or brownies.

During the holidays we have to be especially careful not to drink the proverbial kool-aid of advertising or we will suffer unnecessarily. If we compare our family with families that seem perfect on Target commercials or Stove Top Stuffing ads, we will cause ourselves more stress. If we envision Norman Rockwell when Ray Donovan, The Addams Family or The Jeffersons is closer to reality, we won’t notice the strengths of our own family. Accepting what our family looks like and who makes it up is the best way to grow peace of mind. Accepting it for now means you don’t have to struggle with it, judge it, cajole it, or condone it. It’s just the way it is, and you can choose how to move forward in whatever way you wish. You remain mindful that friends are our family of choice, although accepting them is not as challenging.

Perhaps we feel we should look forward to the holidays -- maybe sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t. We resent feeling pressured to buy a gift for the uncle who has never been good to our aunt or having to visit family who never visit us, and we abhor listening to cousin X or sibling y pontificate on the dangers of gluten or the merits of L. Ron Hubbard. And, all of this is normal. You are not alone, and you are not Satan.

A few things that go through the minds of many people during this time of year…

  1. I am related to several people; some I love and some I tolerate.

  2. Next year I am going on vacation from November through January.

  3. I have no desire to “update” anyone on anything.

  4. I don’t want to hear about how much cousin Johnny (insert name) makes after going to Harvard Business School because he is a donkey.

  5. Sometimes pretending to listen is the best I can do.

  6. If Uncle X forgets what I do for work again (though he never ceases to point out how cool it is that my brother works for the Red Sox**), I’m going to pretend I don’t know him.

We reminisce about previous holidays that were painful, decent, and/or wonderful. There are as many types of holidays as there are people. It is not all ribbons and spice. And while I am not trying to be a holiday downer, I believe that if we think of the holidays in more realistic terms, we’ll enjoy them more. Beautiful moments live right beside painful moments. Children are born to elated parents while, at the same time on the same day, a veteran takes his/her life. Joy lives next to pain and pain next to joy.

In October 1973 my father died while playing tennis with a good friend. He was probably having fun until his heart failed him -- though as a kid I never thought of it that way. I don’t remember the first Thanksgiving without him, but I recall the first Christmas. I felt no joy, whimsy, or excitement. I felt sad, angry, and abandoned. And yet, I felt loved, safe, and cared for by my mother and other family members; I was fortunate and I was sad.

Throughout the holidays people miss those they’ve lost and continue to care for elderly parents who no longer remember their names because of Alzheimer’s. And still, it’s quite likely that for the many who struggle, whose life circumstances are not ideal, there are moments of joy, connection, and gratitude. Like life, these “festive” months are not “either/or” or “black or white,” they’re a mixed bag.

We can enjoy life in millions of ways. By remembering we’re not alone with the myriad complex feelings that arise at this time of year, we can enjoy holiday cheer while understanding that not everyone feels cheery.

A few thoughts/suggestions for being true to yourself over the next several weeks.

  1. Perhaps it would be good to reach out to a friend you haven’t seen for years.

  2. Make a point to see the relatives or friends you most want to see instead of those you should see.

  3. When you are tempted to blow off your walk or run, don’t, because you’ll sleep better and feel less stressed if you make the effort.

  4. Remember that you can say, I’m not sure. I’ll get back to you, or No, a visit won’t work tonight.

  5. Gratitude lists make us feel better and widen our perspective.

  6. Offload the feeling that you have to make your life look or sound a certain way, especially if you are a young adult. It takes the time it takes to find your path. We are all more than what we do or have, and the wisest people know that life is a work in progress.

  7. If you’ve just lost a job, are going through a break-up, or had a second miscarriage (or anything that’s difficult or painful), remember that you owe no one an explanation and that it is perfectly acceptable to say, “I’d like to change the subject,” or “I don’t want to talk about that. Thanks for understanding.”

  8. There is no one exactly like you -- no one with your personality, your mind, or your perspective. You matter. Read Desiderata: ”You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees or the stars. You have a right to be here.”

  9. See the wonder of small things, of gestures and affection.

  10. Notice who and what you love, admire, or feel inspired by. Notice who you feel best around and talk to them, stay in touch. Reach out to someone who looks overwhelmed or blue. Smile, offer them more potatoes, or ask them about their favorite show or movie. Everyone wants to feel “part of,” and we all have the power to bring people into the fold, to be their hero/heroine, if only for a few minutes.

Shalom. Peace be with you. Namaste.

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