The holidays come sprinkled with promises of “brightness” and “cheer.” It’s a universally meaningful time for millions of people, and I would argue that this sense of connectedness is a large part of what makes the season seem sort of magical. Yet for many people, the winter months don’t always live up to their heartwarming reputation. According to a study for American Psychological Association, 26 percent of people feel lonely over the holidays and 38 percent reported an increase in stress.
A lot of people aren’t able to make it home to see their loved ones. Others are enclosed by herds of relatives and still feel a sense of isolation. No matter what your situation, it is NOT uncommon to feel lonely in these months. Going home can stir up emotions we’ve swept under the rug or may not even be aware of. We’re often swung back into settings where a lot of complex memories took place. Some may be joyful but others are painful.
Many children feel lonely or outcast at some point in their development. In many homes, kids are seen by their parents or early caretakers as good, bad, sharp, slow, burdensome, worrisome, disappointing or destined for greatness. These labels and expectations can hurt us in conscious and unconscious ways throughout our development. When we’re thrown back into that childhood setting, or around people we grew up with, we sometimes feel like kids again on the inside, re-experiencing old feelings or just not feeling ourselves. Dr. Dan Siegel refers to this phenomenon as “getting lost in familiar places.” This vulnerability is all the more reason to practice self-compassion and to be wary of old familiar hurtful ways we can think about ourselves. With that in mind, here are a few strategies that can help you stay yourself at the close of your year and on into the next.
1. Stop expecting perfection
Many of us tend to have a picture in our heads of what the ideal holiday should be. We expect it to be as perfectly polished as the shiny ornaments that surround us. The frenzied build up inherently sets us up for a certain amount of letdown. This is particularly observable in children. After Thanksgiving, my nieces confessed to me that they actually felt a little depressed following our family’s annual festivities. Thanksgiving is a big deal in our house. We get dressed up, and our big, extended family celebrates the way one would a wedding or gala. The whole day brings a lot of happiness, but much of that is in the preparation: cooking together, setting the tables, posting a large tent in our yard. After that, the kids felt the evening itself just went by too quickly. No matter how great everything turned out, it couldn’t quite live up to the excitement they’d felt.
This is a feeling a lot of people have about everything from presents to interactions with family members. “Maybe old wounds will finally heal, and all we will feel is warmth and love.” We have a fantasy of everything going smoothly, which leaves us all the more crushed when there turn out to be bumps in the road. Try to take pleasure in the little things without attaching too much weight to things you can’t control or that don’t have that much to do with the life you’ve created for yourself in the present.
2. Stop evaluating
The close of a year tends to be a time of reflection. We may feel a natural sadness that comes with both our losses and our gains. However, there is a fine line between self-reflection and self-evaluation. It’s one thing to look back on our year with curiosity and an interest in any changes we’d make in the future. It’s another thing to beat ourselves up over our shortcomings and to judge ourselves like a cold critic scrutinizing a performance.
With so many social gatherings, it’s easy to start comparing ourselves to others:
Everyone is in a relationship. Why are you still alone? It’s so humiliating!
Look how successful he is. You’ll never have an important career.
She is so together. You’re such a mess.
You don’t fit in anywhere. You’re just different.
These “critical inner voices” make up an ongoing dialogue that reinforces the basic belief that we are not good enough. This inner critic makes us feel worthless and unlike others in some negative sense. It encourages us to be alone, then disparages us for being a loner. It contributes to our loneliness by constantly reminding us we are unworthy of the life we desire and by alienating us from those we care about.
Get to know this inner critic, because the more we can separate our real selves from its destructive point of view, the better off we will be. Because this inner critic started forming early in our lives based on ways we were seen in our family, expect it to get a little louder when we enter settings from our past. Stay determined in your mission to ignore this cruel coach, and don’t listen to its awful advice. Remember it is not a representation of who you really are and will only work to sabotage you.
3. Spend time with your family of choice
During the holidays, you may feel obligated to spend time with certain people who don’t make you feel that great. Whether you choose to do that or not, it’s valuable to set aside some time to be with your family-of-choice. This can be an intimate group of friends, your kids, your partner or anyone who makes you feel good and more in touch with yourself. Carve out time for the people, places and activities that make you feel the most like you, the people who make you laugh, think or feel in ways that are meaningful to you.
If you’re far away from the people you care about or are feeling disconnected, seek out scenes in which you’re sharing something, even with complete strangers. Volunteering is one of the best things you can do for yourself when you’re feeling down. It forces you to think outside yourself and share a project with others. Think of a cause that matters to you and take some time to be a part of it. Generosity offers a natural way for us to feel good about ourselves. Plus, being part of a team instantly creates a sense of camaraderie over a shared concern.
5. Stay in the moment, even when it makes you sad
Sometimes, it takes being in a room full of people to make us feel our most alone. No matter how many people we pack into the car with us to take to the party, every one of us is our own unique individual person, living and breathing on our own. We all have moments, where we feel a sense of our profound aloneness. When we contemplate our existence, we can expect it to stir us up. The sense of time passing, which can be brought about by a year ending, is always a sobering realization.
Not every moment will be filled with joy, and even those that are can carry with them a certain amount of poignancy at life’s preciousness. New Year’s reminds us of years past. It shines light on the faces of those we’ve lost. It tells us we are older, maybe wiser and far more aware that time isn’t something we can grip. We don’t have to sink with this feeling. We are better off letting ourselves feel whatever we feel. Sadness can come in waves, and when it passes, we’re often left with a sense of peace and vitality. When we try to drown it out we wind up also numbing ourselves to the many pleasures life brings.
Too often, we distract ourselves from these deeper feelings by busying our minds with worries or critical inner voices. When a negative thought starts to take flight, like a balloon released from the bunch, try not to drift away with it. Gently bring yourself back to the moment. Then shift your focus outward. Think about what you could offer; this will take you out of your head.
Staying in the moment won’t spare us from any feelings of sadness or loneliness, but it encourages us to practice patience and self-compassion. It helps us to feel whatever is really going on in our lives. If we sense that our inner critic is taking over, luring us into self-destructive behaviors, we can kindly bring our attention back to what is important to us. We can take actions that reconnect us to our experiences and the people around us. We can open our eyes to possibilities and consciously create the holiday that will mean something to us.