It's the most wonderful time of the year... except when it's not.
Mud weren’t far off the mark when they sang It’ll Be Lonely is Christmas. There’s something about twinkling lights, party season pressures and the season of goodwill that can make even the most outgoing of us feel like we’re all alone. “The festive season is traditionally associated with family, relationships and celebrating, but there can be immense pressure on everyone to be living their best life,” clarifies psychotherapist Fiona Hall (@consciouslyclearing).
Trouble is, adds Fiona, “we assume everyone else is having a better time than us and that’s why we often feel lonely. The reality is that people are often not living the dream, they just present the image that they are and then we feel lonely by comparison.”
In actual fact calls to counselling services spike after the festive season as relationships struggle and sometimes fall apart. Yet from the outside looking in we do not see the reality. We are looking at others instead of adding to our own joy and feeling the lonelier for it!
So you’re certainly not alone in feeling lonely, but how can you beat the festive blues? First off, says Fiona, “Isolating yourself by avoiding invitations is not the answer. In fact, it can exacerbate the situation. Sometimes we have to push through our loneliness to reconnect with others.”
Next? Take the pressure off. “A lot of people put way too much pressure on having the perfect New Year’s Eve, for example,” Fiona notes. “Why not start your own traditions instead? Climb a mountain with friends, watch the sun go down…”
Lastly, reconnect with childhood joys, Fiona advises. “Most of us will not remember all the Santa gifts we received as children. However many will remember the delicious food, the magical music, the anticipation and the excitement of it all,” she notes. “So find meaningful ways to spend your time. Cook for friends. Go to a local choir service. Wander about town and see the Christmas lights. Go for coffee or a drink with your work crew and start your own traditions.”
Finally, Fiona concludes that “you get out of the festive season what you put into it, not in terms
of money but in terms of time and attention. Start investing your time and attention in this festive period and do something festive every day.”
You’re barely through the door and already you’re bickering. Your siblings are driving you up the walls. And your mum is pushing your buttons. Why is it that family tensions can so badly are up during silly season?
Psychotherapist Karina Melvin reckons it boils down to this: There are a lot of expectations on people at Christmas.
While it should be a time to pause, reflect on the year that’s passed and connect with loved ones, the spirit of the season has unfortunately been lost in recent times. Now there are huge pressures on families that are impossible to uphold and this extra stress often leads to tensions and arguments as we feel overwhelmed.
The best way then to avoid those tensions flaring? Karina puts it simply: “Know your limitations and manage expectations. Before the holidays begin, reflect on how you would like your Christmas to be, informing family members well in advance what your plans are. Christmas Day is just one day and you cannot be everywhere. Figure out what’s right for you and your family and be comfortable with that.”
The important thing Karina adds, is to “be intentional about how you spend your money and your time. Feeling organised and prepared really helps when it comes to avoiding arguments. When you feel on top of things you are much less likely to get embroiled in family politics.” Next, also have some intentions for the Christmas season that mean something to you, advises Karina.
Perhaps you want to cut down on waste and excess spending, or you want to hold onto the spirt of the season and carry that with you in your interactions this with your loved ones and take some time to write down how you want to be. This is very effective as it focuses your mind and helps to mitigate reacting to things when you know how you want to feel and behave.
And if an argument does occur? “Stay calm and don’t engage, remember that it takes two for an argument to escalate, so if you don’t engage it will diffuse easily,” Karina explains. Instead, simply acknowledge the other person’s feelings and recognise their frustrations, she suggests. “This is so simple, yet incredibly powerful. Often people just need to let their anger out and often it really has nothing to do with you, but is the result of deeper personal issues. It’s so helpful to hold on to the idea that if someone is angry or frustrated that it’s about them, not you.”
Finally, “Take some space, and feel compassion,” instructs Karina. “This may sound diffcult but it’s so effective and once you’ve created your own set of values for how you want to experience Christmas, these will help ground you so that your position of not engaging in arguments is more robust and easy to hold on to.”
You’re at a party. The music is lit. The drink is flowing. There’s just one problem: you’re stuck with fear. “Christmas can be such a bittersweet time for people who suffer with social anxiety because on the one hand, there’s so much cosiness and it’s perfectly fine to stay home and snug on the sofa but on the other hand as Christmas itself gets closer, everything gets busier,” explains life coach Paula Coogan.
What really is difficult are events and expectations. Knowing that there will be numerous events coming up and that you will be expected to attend and smile. Plans are normally made well in advance which is great for some people but if you suffer from social anxiety, it ensures that you have longer to worry about it and stress over it.
Add to that, “Christmas brings with it a lot of people and conversations that are unusual,” says Paula. “We’re exposed to different people and sometimes their curiosity and questioning can cross our lines or make us feel uncomfortable. When you’re suffering from social anxiety, you don’t want to be rude so instead often we squirm, answer as best as we can and come away from the interaction feeling lousy or that we made a fool of ourselves which then reinforces the anxiety. It’s a really tricky time of year to find the right balance.”
So what can you do to feel like less of an awkward turtle? “First, recognise and acknowledge you suffer from social anxiety,” says Paula. “Educate yourself and seek out support from your doctor, counsellor, CBT practitioner or a life coach. Consider telling close friends and family how you feel and that will help ease the pressure of other people’s expectations around Christmas as well.”
Then? Block off some time for you, advises Paula. “With invitations coming in every day, it can be easy to forget to take some time for ourselves in the build up to and during the festive season. It might sound like common sense, but blocking off time in your diary for you to do nothing but rest and relax will help,” she notes. And lastly, don’t be afraid to say no.
Fear of missing out or fear of what others may think can make many people say yes to every single invitation. However the most important thing you can do for yourself, at any time of year, is learning how to say no when you want to. We have to start changing the programming that putting ourselves first is bad.
“If you know that a situation is going to be stressful for you, or you’d rather have an evening to yourself instead of heading out for drinks again then say no. Saying no helps you set boundaries and prioritise your own feelings and needs.”
The bottom line? “In the long run, it’s far worse to put yourself in anxiety-inducing situations that leave you feeling overwhelmed or stressed than it is to say no to something,” Paula concludes. “It can feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s more important to put yourself first than worry about pleasing others all the time.”
That said, “Saying no now is good to give you space and breathing room but if it becomes your default avoidance strategy then it’s not helping you,” Paula adds.
Christmas can be tricky if there’s an empty spot at your dinner table. “During the festive period, there is an emphasis on spending time with family and loved ones,” Karina explains. “It’s also a time where there is a collective expectation to enjoy. This can be especially difficult for people who are grieving a loss as the awareness of that missing person is all the more keenly felt when everyone else appears to be full of merriment.”
So what coping strategies can you implement to help you deal with grief over the festive period? “Reaching out to the people in your life is more important than ever at this time, even if you don’t feel like it,” says Karina. “Death touches us all at some point in our lives, so collectively we tend to forget quickly when someone close to us has lost someone as it is a way of distancing ourselves from the inevitable.” Though it can be difficult, “it’s very helpful to communicate that you need support,” Karina advises. “The loved ones in your life will step up, they may just need a reminder that it’s a difficult time for you.”
As for feeling closer to your lost loved one, there are lots of ways you can include them in the celebrations.
It’s very helpful to speak about the people we’ve lost, share stories, and remember them with others. Some people may feel that they would rather not talk about their loved ones who have passed, but actually it’s extremely cathartic. By speaking about them and sharing memories, it is a way of mediating the loss that you are feeling internally.
Even though it can be painful, Karina says that Christmas is such a good time to reach out. “It’s an opportunity to reflect, share memories, reach out to people who you haven’t been in touch with in a while, perhaps because of the grief. It’s a good time to re-connect, and the people in your life will appreciate it too.”