by Dick Donnenwirth, LPCC-S

“Pastor Smith, everyone else feels so good around the holidays, but I feel so bad!”
“Brother Jones, why do I feel sad when I should be happy about Christ’s birth?”
“Rev. Brown, this Christmas Spirit is just about to get me down!”
“Father Murphy, will God forgive me for being depressed at Christmas time?”

All spiritual leaders are besieged with similar queries around holiday time. Why is this and what is an effective way to respond?

The “Holiday Humbugs” are actually a rather common reaction which many people try to deny within themselves. They cannot imagine they are feeling badly and so they kid themselves and pretend with others. This only creates more stress and leads to further denial, repression and underlying guilt feelings. As troubled persons approach holidays, they see around them expressions of joy, frivolity, laughter, excitement and expectation. They hear others anticipating the giving and receiving of gifts, Religious season and secular commercialism combine creating a rising crescendo of happiness. However, many of us bring to the holiday season our lingering unhappiness about our own particular lives. The joyful context in which we find ourselves only makes us feel worse and often leads either to play-acting or withdrawal from others. Feigning joy when we don’t experience it results in an internal sense of falseness and failure.

Being able to recognize these murmurings within ourselves (the caregivers) is the first necessity for true empathy with the full blown ‘humbugs.’ This suggests we either treat them casually or judge them harshly. Also, it is helpful for us to take ambivalence seriously and realistically. Seldom can we or others feel totally and completely one way about experiences. Many persons need assurance on this point and, once reassured, feel a decrease of pressure. Then, too, holidays are packed with meaning, some known and some unknown. Memories of Christmas past from childhood and early adult life have enormous impact on all of us. Negotiating new traditions is often experienced as an irresistible force/immovable object. Helping others to appreciate the commonality of these dynamics can be tremendously relieving.

Summarizing: 1) obligatory happiness, 2) feeling different, 3) past holiday meanings, 4) pretense and denial all play a part in creating the Christmas blues and New Year fears. You can help persons by 1) appreciating your own partial identifications with them, 2) helping them understand the naturalness and commonness of these feelings, 3) assisting their verbalizing expectations from past holidays, 4) participating in the realistic evaluation of these expectations and 5) creating a dynamic perspective in which persons can experience the coming of feelings and the going of feelings.

Have a realistically happy holiday season.

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