by LeeAnn Decker, M.A., C.M.H.C.
In the popular Dr. Seuss book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, there's a lonely old character called the Grinch who hates Christmas. Every year, he has sat on his hilltop and looked down upon a town filled with seemingly happy, loving families who celebrate Christmas in happy, loving ways. He decides he just can't take it one more year and devises a plan to stop Christmas from coming. The plan, of course, doesn't work, but he discovers a sense of love inside himself that he'd never known before.
Many of us are estranged from our families of origin, either through physical distance, childhood trauma, or through living a lifestyle our families don't understand. Like the Grinch, we can feel very alone when it appears that "everyone else" has loving families with whom to spend the holidays. The media, our neighbors, even our friends, often portray the idea that everyone will be with people who love them, feed them and take care of them. The inner child in us longs for this kind of experience, which many of us never had.
When it appears that others have what we don't have and it connects to a childhood longing, the question comes up, "Why me?" This is a question from the inner child, who thinks she/he caused everything. The inner child can only answer, "Because I'm not good enough to be loved," so holiday aloneness can all-too-easily turn into shame: "There's something wrong with me or people would be loving me and feeding me on Christmas."
Usually this shame is not a conscious thought. Many people react to it unconsciously. Compulsive shopping, eating, drinking, working, and all the other compulsions and addictions reach their height at the holidays. There are usually attempts to soothe or erase the pain of the shame. They may also be attempts to make oneself "good enough to be loved," such as "If I just look good enough at the holiday party..." or "If I just buy the perfect gift for my mother..." or "If I just host a holiday gathering..."
The holidays are also a time of both conscious and unconscious grief. Lost loved ones are missed. Traumatic holidays are remembered. Unrealized dreams are counted. The end of the year brings around regrets about goals or resolutions that are yet unfulfilled. The days are dark and short. There's a natural turning within to look at the dark aspects of ourselves and our lives.
But our culture says we're supposed to be happy and carefree at this time of year. We wonder why we don't feel that way and the shame creeps in.
With all of these issues on or near the surface at this time of year, we have a great opportunity for healing, for discovering that the love we've always wanted from others truly exists inside ourselves. Following are some suggestions for making the holidays a time of healing.
Ask your heart for answers
Ask yourself how you'd really like to spend the holiday. Include your inner child. Write down all ideas that come to mind, no matter how outrageous. Then put your pen down and get into a comfortable seated position. Close your eyes. Bring your attention to your heart. Now is the time to stop your thoughts as best you can and allow your heart to answer.
If you feel you have a connection to a greater power or being, you can ask this source for help to go deeper for your answer. If you don't feel you have this kind of connection, skip this step.
Pose the question again. "How would I really like to spend my holiday?" Keep focusing on your heart area. If you don't feel calm, deepen and lengthen your breath. Try not to figure out the answer. Wait for your heart to answer. You may get an image, a feeling, or a simple word or phrase.
You'll know the answer has come from the deeper part of yourself when you feel some sense of relief, such as a spontaneous deep breath, a lifting of anxiety, a calming of thoughts, or an "aha" experience. You may get nothing. That's fine. You have posed the question to the deeper part of yourself, which knows what's truly best for you. You will get an answer in some form. Sometimes it takes a few hours or days.
Often, mental conflicts arise when you get an answer from your deeper self. That part of you is not concerned with making you "good enough to be loved." There may be another part of you that is very strong and very afraid of letting go of anything you do to make yourself "good enough."
Give yourself permission
Use the above contemplation method to go deep into yourself by focusing on your heart area and calming your thoughts. When you feel more grounded in your heart, repeat the following phrase to your deeper self and wait for that part of you to fill in the blanks. "It's okay for me to ___________ and still be ____________."
Wait for the answers to come in simple, childlike language. Again, if you don't get the answers, or they don't bring a sense of relief, know you will get the answers you need in a few hours or days.
Some examples from my own and clients work with this exercise are: "It's okay for me to feel sad and still enjoy myself." "It's okay for me to do nothing and still be wanted by others." "It's okay for me to be a total idiot and still be loving and loved." The answers may not make sense to your conscious mind. Just accept what comes when it brings relief.
Do as little as possible
Many of us busy ourselves to keep away from feelings. The more feelings lurk just under the surface, the busier we get. It's an effort to contain the feelings that we are afraid could be overwhelming.
Look at your list of things to do. Ask yourself what's really necessary and what else you think you have to do in order to make yourself "good enough to be loved." Chances are you'll find the list breaks down to be about half necessary items and that the other half are things you think will compensate for some imagined inadequacy.
If you are more alone than would like to be during the holidays, either by choice or by circumstance, give yourself a reality check. Take a walk. You may see people eating dinner at Grandma's house, but you will probably also see others walking alone. It's comforting to see that you're not alone in your aloneness. Offer a smile in recognition of your kinship with those who may also be grieving or feeling alone. Notice trees, birds, and animals and think about their hardships at this time of year. Offer them your blessings.
Take time to grieve
Give yourself the time to cry, journal, and/or perform a ritual related to a personal loss. If the feelings are too much to bear, get help from a trusted friend or therapist.
A grief journal can be very powerful. It can be helpful to have a special place where all the grief can go and be contained apart from the rest of your life. I once made a grief journal out of several pieces of paper, in a variety of colors, wrapped in a special ribbon. I also designated a pen that was to be used only for my grief. Each day I took out a page that represented the color of my feeling and wrote for 15 minutes, whether I thought I had anything to write or not. It was amazing how much old grief became unblocked and resolved in this way.
Treat yourself to light and warmth to counteract the dark and cold. Light candles, turn on extra lamps, wrap yourself in warm blankets and baths. Cook warm, soothing food and drink hot tea, but don't indulge in too much sugar.
Giving opens the heart. There are so many small ways to give that bring you and others great healing. Offer prayers for those who are suffering, pick up a piece of garbage in a public park, call someone who may be feeling lonely, give a cookie to the garbage pickup person, tell someone you appreciate their smile.
Most of all, give thanks for the darkness and the opportunity for healing. Soon the days will be longer, lighter, and warmer. Feelings will change. Spring will come.
May you enjoy the gift of inner peace this holiday!
LeeAnn Decker, M.A., C.M.H.C is a certified mental health counselor who specializes in healing from trauma, grief and loss, women's issues, and life transitions. Her office is in Seattle near the Arboretum. She can be reached at (206) 860-2427.