When the Holidays are Hollow

(and four ways to fill them with meaning)

The holidays are anxiety-provoking. Some of us will truly enjoy this time of of giving, reflection, and celebration with loved ones. Others find the holidays so problematic they wish they could skip them entirely. Most of us will fall somewhere in the middle, navigating what to give and how much time to spend at gatherings, uncertain how to balance our own needs with the obligations we feel. The pressure to spend our time and money in specific ways can be overwhelming, and it can make our feelings unclear. Let’s try to understand these expectations and their pitfalls, as well as the ways we respond to them.

TV, movies, and family members alike circulate confusing messages: it’s the thought that counts, but buy something impressive to show how much you care. And, spend lots of time with family–regardless of the quality of your family relationships. We often respond to holiday stress by performing exactly in the ways demanded of us in order to avoid thinking about our needs and how to address them.

Many families share the expectation to spend lavishly on gifts, and to buy a gift proportionately to the recipient’s value or status in the family. In other words, to prove your love through gift giving. Because it can feel daunting to challenge this imperative, we often head to box stores and blindly purchase as we’re told.

We approach holiday gatherings uncertain about how to balance our boundaries. Many of us will show up for these events out of an unconscious longing that, despite past experiences, this holiday be an event that heals and connects us, where our family reveals its true core of love as past issues dissolve. Countless clichés perpetuate this holiday promise, and movies illustrate silly storylines about how once-toxic in-laws, parents, or siblings soften to reveal special healing powers, reversing family strife forever (or at least until the next holiday crisis).

We justify expenditures of time, money, and energy partly out of our desire to manifest these resolutions. Or worse–we justify our efforts because we fear the consequences, spoken or not, if we do not perform in the ways expected of us. Family members can respond with anger, resentment, and sadness, even gossip and scapegoating as a result of our choices, leaving us to sit with guilt and other feelings we would rather avoid. So we give in, buy gifts, and endure epic family engagements.

For many of us, the holidays invariably include periods of grief when we confront the reality that while the gifts we gave and the time we spent may prevent disappointment, our efforts did not, in fact, change anything about our relationships. It is challenging to confront these feelings while we navigate our holiday choices, and easy to push them out of the way with excesses like food and alcohol. Giving gifts and participating in holiday functions can also serve to suppress the confusion, longing, and grief that linger uncomfortably under the surface. We ignore our true capacity to give and we ignore the nagging need to take care of ourselves.

The holidays aren’t about commerce (despite Black Friday reports) or obligation. Rather, the holidays are a time to identify who and what in your life is fulfilling to you, a time of inward reflection, relaxed celebration, and yes, reward through exchanges of appreciation. As with our offerings of time, gift-giving should be about both our ability to give authentically and to receive, and for the act to be genuine. To offer yourself authentically means to thwart expectation, to honor your true capacity and offer what’s genuine, not out of a false self–the self you create out of obligation or fear. It is especially important that you take time to celebrate with people who appreciate the authentic you.

For some of us the holidays will actually be joyful, whether we participate with our original family units or with families we’ve created with partners and friends. For others, the holidays repeatedly feel like a setup for despair. Despite the pressure you experience internally and externally, it is up to you to create a little bit of joy or reward at this time.

In the sincere hope that you create an opportunity for yourself to enjoy the holidays, I’d like to offer some suggestions:

  • Don’t buy expensive gifts if you can’t afford them. As much as exchanging gifts can be meaningful, attempting to prove the recipient’s worth through a gift will never work. If it takes an expensive gift, that individual may be communicating that they aren’t satisfied with your relationship as it is, or that there is an underlying issue for which they would like you to “buy” resolution. Gift-giving, however, cannot stand in for a mutually attentive relationship, and you should not give a gift to try to resolve family issues or care-take someone else’s inability to communicate. If you do give a gift, try to think of gift-giving as showing appreciation for that individual, or what you know to be that person’s true intentions, rather than as a means to resolution.
  • The best gifts are handmade. Like your mother, or someone, at some point suggested, the best gifts really are handmade, customized, or well-thought-out (rather than well-monied). This time the cliché is helpful, because the gifts that feel the warmest, most wholesome, and genuine are the ones that someone put effort and thought into, not the generic gifts someone bought at a department store.
  • Spend time with people who appreciate you and uplift your mood. Make sure you spend at least part of your holiday time around people with whom you have mutually supportive relationships. A friend recently hosted a small crafting party. It was a surprising opportunity to get into the holiday spirit, and to create special one-of-a-kind handmade gifts.
  • Finally, and most importantly, honor your own boundaries. It’s not your job to fix your family, nor your obligation to appear at gatherings on someone else’s terms. It is your responsibility to limit the amount of time spent based on your needs, or whether to appear at all, but be careful that you don’t make things more stressful by taking a stand. For some, the holidays may not be the best time to radically experiment with boundaries. Yet it is your responsibility–and yours alone–to attend to your needs at this time.

A revised version of this article appeared on elephant journal.
I welcome your feedback at molly@mollyhoward.org.