By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
It seems like a wonderful time of year. People get excited for time with their families, to enjoy holiday traditions and make new memories. But – I think it’s actually just as common for people to not look forward to this time of year. If you are one of those who don’t you may feel like you are the odd ball, thinking that most people can’t identify with your perspective. And so, like those many who can identify with you, you keep those feelings and thoughts to yourself and put on a pretend face. Maybe you have found someone with whom you can commiserate, and if so, you may end up mocking those who seem naively upbeat. It’s a common way of coping with our hurts, by mocking folks who don’t really get it, and elevating our own higher sense of clarity and realism. Problem is, it really doesn’t help you to cope or get through the time in a healthy and fulfilling manner. There really is a difference in how you get through the holidays. I am wondering if you may be interested in a better way?
So let me first define this better way before I share with you how to experience it. And I already know some of you are not going to be impressed. And so I know that I will need to convince you that it really is a better way. So let me state right off the bat that if what you are looking for is a simple way, that will require very little from you, that I probably don’t have anything that you’d be interested in. Because simple ways to get by in life abound – although they all have negative consequences and hold nothing for the long term. But if you actually want to do what it takes to get to a place in which your heart is changed and your pains can begin to be healed, then stick with me.
It’s fair to say there would be a bucket load of diverse reasons for why someone would be struggling with going through the holidays. But I can of think three categories in which a lot of people would fit would be because of loss or loneliness or bad experiences. Loss meaning that they are dealing with memories of what was, but is now either gone or estranged or changed. Maybe a loved one has died, maybe there’s been divorce, maybe someone has lost their health or some abilities? Maybe the loss has been financial? But what it means is that the holiday time triggers sadness as one remembers – and feels the sting of the loss. This may then produce anxieties about how you will deal with your situation or with others, or can produce anger towards the one who is gone or towards those who we believe are observing us critically or with pity. The sadness may lead to feelings of shame or guilt or embarrassment.
The second category is loneliness. This may be related to the first category, as the loss resulted in someone now being more alone than before. Or, maybe you feel lonely because of a lack of close relationships. Maybe it triggers the sadness and loneliness of singleness? And again this sadness can lead to feelings of anxiety, anger, shame, guilt or embarrassment.
The third category is about bad experiences in the past. Maybe the holidays were not enjoyable for you growing up? Or maybe something hurtful or even traumatic happened during this time of year and now the holidays are like a painful reminder you wish to avoid. And again – painful memories that lead to sadness, anxiety, anger, shame, guilt, and or embarrassment.
Most people deal with painful and negative emotions by suppressing them, which in a way is training yourself not to feel them. However, suppression of emotion is simply passing the buck as it were, meaning that if you are successful at that time of not feeling it or dealing with it, does not mean it is gone, but rather that it will show up at another time. This may be advantageous at say the dinner party in which your ex shows up and you are able to not break down in front of everyone. But suppression has two consequences. One – you end up training yourself to rely on this unproductive method, and 2 – you stunt your emotional growth and keep yourself stuck in your pain. Some people continue to pass this buck – hoping if they pass it enough they will never have to deal with it. But it just doesn’t work that way.
The better way is to befriend your pain. You see, as long as your pain remains the enemy that you believe you have to run from, you will always be looking over your shoulder, always expending emotional energy to keep it down. But what if your pain is not really your enemy? What if we’ve been taught to fear and hide from pain and sadness when it was not our enemy all along? And I propose that it is our resistance to sadness that leads to the feelings of anger, anxiety, shame, guilt and embarrassment.
Mike Mason says in the Practicing the Presence of People that “underneath anger is fear and underneath fear is sadness.” In his chapter on sadness, Mike extols the blessings of sadness, as odd as that may sound. He says that sadness keeps happiness practical, that it signals change, that sadness is honest, and that sadness is close to the Biblical idea of repentance. He points out that sadness is one of the beatitudes, “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”. And he says that sadness is the beginning of mercy.
So, what am I saying? I am suggesting that when you stop the avoidance – stop the stiff upper lip stuff, let down the bitter anger and blaming, and just feel the sadness – the disappointment, or the hurt, or the loss – then you can grieve – and grieving helps you to move through the loss and pain. Moving through it means that I am not afraid to process it, connect with it, let it affect me and maybe to share it with safe others and experience comfort.
And then – grief sets you free – free to embrace new things – Gerald Sittser in his book A Grace Disguised says, “This challenge is met when we learn to take the loss into ourselves and be enlarged by it.” I know what I am suggesting sounds like I am calling you to wallow in your pain. That would be incorrect. What I am calling you to is to stop avoiding your pain and to stop blocking the process of resolution. Yes, the process is a painful one, but you are in pain anyway – even if you are able to suppress parts of it. Being stuck creates a type of pain as well. Besides, you are not living. Living in avoidance is not really living, and you probably, somewhere inside of you, know that to be true. You are just too scared to take the risk to find out if there is life on the other side of your pain.
Don’t take the risk alone! Find a few trusted, safe people to walk with you. Maybe consider meeting with a counselor? But I believe that if you do, that that’s the way that you won’t have to be in the same place next year and the year after. Then the holidays will become a time of celebration – of when you started on a new path, of when you found hope and healing. I believe God meets with the grieving heart and he will guide you through it as you abandon yourself to him. Boy does that fit right in with the season of Christmas! Christmas is about God coming to man – coming to our darkness – to bring “good tiding of great joy”, isn’t it?!
If you would like to schedule a counseling appt. with Matt please call our office at 407-647-7005.
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