The holidays are an exercise in polarities for me.
Exciting and clichéd, I can’t seem to let go of the hope that this time will be amazing and joyful; a winter wonderland promise fulfilled. That family issues will magically dissolve and miracles will land gently in our laps like crystalline snowflakes.
Even though I always manage to enjoy myself (in short bursts), the holiday promise escapes me like a deflating balloon. I can’t recall a year I didn’t experience December melancholy.
Some of us will truly enjoy this time as a period of reflection and celebration with the people we love, but others find them so problematic they barely begrudge an acknowledgment. We navigate what to give and how much time to spend at family gatherings, confused how to balance our own needs with the obligations expected of us.
The pressure mounts to spend time and money in specific ways, our own feelings clouded along the way. How should we respond to the mixed messages? It’s the thought that counts (really!), but buy something impressive to show how much you care. Spend lots of time with family, regardless of the quality of those relationships.
The biggest pitfall occurs not in our melancholy or introspection; it happens when we respond to the stress by performing exactly in the ways we think are required—when we avoid thinking about our own needs and how we might address them. That’s how we lose our mindfulness.
Out of the holiday emergency, we forget to register how we really feel.
My family shared an unspoken expectation to spend lavishly on gifts, even though we didn’t have a lot of money. I couldn’t afford to, but I bought expensive gifts anyway, because I had bought the lie: that I could prove my love through gift-giving.
I didn’t know how to let myself feel the disappointment, sadness and anger in not being able to perform in the ways my family insinuated. It’s daunting to challenge that imperative, so we find ourselves in box stores, scrambling to purchase things we’re not sure are really wanted. Crappy things bought in fits of anxiety.
Are you the rare bird who skips on water, or is the heat starting to rise? Is it okay to give your complicated feelings attention this winter?
Just like with gifts, we approach holiday gatherings uncertain how to locate our boundaries. We show up for events out of an unconscious longing that, despite past experiences, this holiday be an event that heals and connects us; one where our family reveals its true core of love and forgiveness while past issues melt away.
Countless storylines perpetuate the myth of holiday redemption, where once-toxic siblings and in-laws soften to reveal special healing powers, reversing family strife forever (or until the next major holiday).
We justify huge expenditures of time, money and energy out of our desire to manifest magical resolutions. Or worse: we justify our actions because we fear the consequences, often unspoken, if we do not perform exactly in the ways suggested.
When family members respond to our boundaries with resentment, gossip or scapegoating, we are left to sit with guilt and other painful feelings we’d rather avoid. So we give in, buy funny things and endure epic family engagements. It’s kind of sweet how much unconscious work we set to the task of pleasing our loved ones. It’s bittersweet, really, because we want so badly for things to be good.
The holidays invariably include periods of grief if we confront the reality that while our colossal efforts may have prevented interpersonal drama, they did not, in fact, change anything fundamental about our relationships.
It is challenging to confront our feelings while we navigate decision-making; easy to push them out of the way with excesses like food and alcohol laid out in pretty holiday spreads.
Giving gifts and participating in functions can also serve to suppress the confusion and longing that linger uncomfortably under the surface.
When we ignore our true capacity to give, we ignore the nagging need to take care of ourselves. And that stops our ability to be mindful.
Can we let ourselves check in, without having to fix or change our feelings? What’s happening inside?
The holidays aren’t about commerce; they’re a time to identify who and what in our lives is fulfilling to us. A time of inward reflection, relaxed celebration, and sure (if we’re up for it), reward through symbolic exchanges of appreciation.
If we set expectation to the side for a moment, what do we feel we can genuinely give? Offerings of gifts and time should be about both the ability to give authentically and to receive, and for the act to be genuine.
To offer ourselves authentically means to thwart expectation and honor our true capacity, rather than acting out of a false self, which is what we create out of obligation or fear.
It is especially important that we take time to celebrate with people who appreciate our authentic selves, our limited, boundaried, imperfect selves.
For some of us the holidays really will be joyful, whether we celebrate with our families of origin or with families we’ve created with partners and friends. In the midst of external pressure, it’s up to us to create an inner atmosphere of reward.
Some steps to help us be more calm and aware for the holidays:
Don’t buy expensive gifts if you can’t afford them.
Attempting to prove the recipient’s worth by giving something big will never succeed. If it takes an expensive gift, something in the relationship needs attention, communication or space. If there is an underlying issue for which that person would like us to “buy” resolution, it’s a losing battle; no gift will stand in for a mutually fulfilling relationship. If we choose to give, we won’t betray ourselves if we offer gifts as a showing of appreciation for what we know that person’s true intentions to be, and not as a means to resolution.
The best gifts reflect the care you put into them; the best gifts are homemade. The gifts that feel the warmest are customized and well-thought-out; they feel wholesome because we experience the effort put forth by the giver. We don’t feel the same way about generic gifts that could have been bought for anyone.
Spend time with people who truly appreciate and uplift you.
To take the best care of ourselves at this time—like any other time—we’ll need to spend part of the holidays with people with whom we share mutually supportive relationships. If those individuals are hard to identify right now, take heart; we’ve all been in transition. Arrange quality time with yourself. We’ve got the best shot at fulfillment when we put effort into giving ourselves exactly what we need.
Honor your own boundaries.
It’s not our job to fix our families, nor is it our obligation to appear on someone else’s terms. It is our responsibility to limit the amount of time spent based on our genuine needs. But be careful: the holidays may not be the best time to radically experiment with boundaries. The best self-care happens when we don’t take it to the extreme. Yet it is our responsibility—and ours alone—to attend to our needs at this time.
Make space for your tender feelings. Show compassion towards yourself. It is hard to befriend pain, but giving ourselves the dedicated time and space to feel all the feelings that come up helps us respond consciously, mindfully. Make a date. Articulate what’s hard and see if there aren’t ways to attend to those experiences. Look for ways to tailor your actions to your most authentic self.
This article originally appeared on elephant journal.