What a year. It feels to me like I am still emotionally stuck in March, and yet somehow my calendar reads December. It has been both the longest and shortest year of my life. Maybe you can relate! Maybe not. Either way, this holiday season is not going to be normal.
The intensity of family gatherings, the loneliness of being away from loved ones, the expectations and hopes which may or may not be met. Things which under ‘normal’ global circumstances are already challenging, but for many have become an awful lot more complicated this year.
May I briefly acknowledge here that my reference to the December ‘holiday season’ may only be relevant to certain countries, cultures, or religious beliefs. If this doesn’t apply to you – please take what might be helpful to apply to the times of year where you might be observing traditions which could present similar challenges.
So, with a fun mix of complex emotions, relationship dynamics, mental health needs, triggers hiding around every corner, and even the pressure of ‘having to enjoy this special time of year’, what can you actually do to protect your boundaries, your needs and your mental health?
Here are some strategies (please take what applies, leave what doesn’t):
1) Try to remove (or reduce) expectations
Here’s the thing; we all have a bunch of expectations around the holidays. Some are good – I will spend time with people I love! I will feel the festive mood! I will be happy and enjoy myself! – and others are bad – we are going to end up arguing; I'm going to have to answer questions which make me feel bad about myself; I’m going to feel lonely.
We can’t help this, we are human. But these expectations cause all kinds of heartache. The bad ones create tension, anxiety and stress before the event, and make it difficult to let go and enjoy ourselves during it. They also make it more likely that we will pick out the things which prove our expectation right, and that we will bring tense or negative energy to interactions which lead to hurt feelings and unresolved issues.
The good expectations are sneakier. They seem innocent and positive. Hopeful. They get us excited about what’s ahead. The issue with them, though, is that they inadvertently create pressure for us and the people around us to ‘have the best time’, and leave no space for us to struggle or have painful moments. This can cause us to end up harbouring resentment towards ourselves and others. Which isn’t exactly what we think of when we talk about the festive spirit!
Also, and this is a big one, high expectations don’t leave room for unexpected greatness, for surprises. If they are met, they can just feel like a box ticked rather than something positive or fun or joyful. And if they aren’t met… Well, we end up feeling disappointed.
So how about trying to get rid of expectations. Feel open to and excited about the prospect of the unexpected or unknown, but apart from that try to ride with it. Pretend you have never experienced a Covid December before (oh wait…) and just watch it all unfold.
2) Notice your physical, emotional and mood changes
When our boundaries are being crossed, or we aren’t getting what we need, the first place it shows up is in our bodies and our sub-conscious (our conscious minds are usually too busy chattering away to hear much of it). We can suffer with fatigue, headaches, insomnia, digestive issues (always fun for some holiday cheer), we can feel tired, irritable, frustrated, anxious, guilty, disappointed, we can just feel off and sometimes we don’t know why.
Notice these changes. They will alert you to the fact that you need something. Ask yourself: 'what do I need?' See what comes up. Maybe it’s a walk, maybe it’s a nap, maybe it’s some space, maybe it’s a chat with a friend, maybe it’s a hug. Listen in!
3) Give yourself permission
This, for so many of us, is the hardest part.
Give yourself permission to take the space you need, to go and lie down, to get some fresh air. Give yourself permission to ask for help, to tell someone ‘no’, to let go of guilt. This is a hard enough time without your own inner bully pushing you around too. Have your own back (in general this is good advice, but especially in intense relational situations it is key!), and remember that old adage about not being able to help others until you help yourself.
In other words, it is not just allowed but also necessary for you to have your needs met. Repeat that with me: ‘It is allowed and necessary for me to have my needs met.’
Give yourself permission to get what you need.
4) Deep breaths
Deep breaths are amazing, I cannot emphasise this enough.
Right now, take a deep breath, the deepest breath you have taken all day. Fill your lungs, breathe right into your belly, into your back. Now try and take in 5% more air. Then sigh it out (or, if you are feeling extra anxious, breath out super slowly). Feel the shift that happens! Just one breath.
When you are stuck, 1 to 5 long deep breaths into your belly can shift your mood, help you check in with your body, relax you, and prepare you for what’s next. It’s so simple, but this also means it is so easy to forget.
Breathing deeply is so powerful because it is the only part of the ‘autonomic nervous system’ (the body processes that just happen without us thinking about them, which keep us alive – including heartbeat, digestion, and breath), that we can easily and instantly consciously control. And when we do, it sends all kinds of messages to our body that we are safe, we are calm, we are OK. And so our nervous system just relaxes.
This is readily available to you always, and has instant benefits, without any harmful side effects. Use it when you wake up, use it when you are feeling tense, use it when someone is asking you why you are still single or you still haven’t got that promotion, use it when the food burns, use it when you feel sad or alone, use it when you feel like you wish you were alone (just for 5 minutes…). It’s like magic.
Please share your experiences, thoughts or ideas in the comments or reach out to me directly. It would be lovely to hear from you. Happy holidays!