“It’s okay to want to be alone. It’s okay to take time for yourself.” ~Kate Allan
It’s the holiday season, the most wonderful time of the year, they say, but it’s not for all of us. For those of us coping with the loss of a loved one, family estrangement, loneliness, financial difficulties, or health struggles, the holidays can be one of the hardest times of the year.
For some of us the holidays can feel as if we have been cast out in the cold. As if we are forced to look through a window of a happy, loving family.
Many of us are filled with feelings of longing for things that can never be, such as more time with a loved one we have lost or a supportive family. We find ourselves swept into memories of holidays past or lost in fantasies about what the holidays would be like if we had a different life.
We find ourselves feeling pressured to hide our problems, bake a dozen cookies, put on a happy smile and an ugly Christmas sweater, and attend that office holiday party. There, we smile and engage in exhausting small talk, and do our best to avoid the subject of what we are doing for the holidays.
These events can leave us feeling totally depleted. We buy obligatory gifts for our friends or coworkers, and we spend hours trying to figure out what they might like. After the gift is purchased, we second guess ourselves and worry that we missed the mark.
Some of us might host parties and obsess over making our tree look absolutely perfect in a desperate effort to please others and give people the impression that everything is fine.
Society has filled our heads with unrealistic notions about perfect gifts, immaculate homes decorated with lavish matching decorations, endless resources to spend, and happy times spent with family. Some of us find ourselves exhausted and stressed trying to live up to social pressures or expectations of others.
Over the years, as I have struggled with various losses in my life or felt cast aside by family members, I have learned that the most important thing we can do over the holidays is take care of ourselves.
As an altruistic person who goes out of the way to please everyone, taking care of myself does not come easily to me. In the past I felt guilty for putting my own needs first, but over the years I’ve learned that our own needs are just as important as everyone else’s. If we sacrifice ourselves to please others, it can not only be harmful to ourselves but those around us as well.
If you are struggling this holiday season, take time to reflect on how you would like to spend the holidays. Remember, you don’t have to buy the perfect gift for everyone, put up a tree, decorate the entire house, spend hours baking cookies, or even attend that family gathering.
If you are worried that a friend will be disappointed that you are not attending an event, you can suggest that you meet up for coffee when you’re feeling up to it.
In the past I worried that a friend would judge me for not attending a holiday event. However, over the years I have learned that true friends are empathetic and do not judge us for needing to take time for ourselves.
The most important thing you can do if you are struggling during the holiday season is pay attention to your own needs and do what you feel is best for you.
If you feel like curling up on the couch with Netflix or a good book and a pet instead of going to a party or a family gathering, give yourself permission. It can sometimes be better for our health and well-being to decline an invitation and rest.
If you are someone who is used to keeping busy, the holidays can become more difficult because our workplaces are often closed or slower than other times of the year.
In order to cope, I create a to-do list filled with new recipes I want to cook or bake, household cleaning that would be helpful to do, movies/shows I want to watch, places I want to go to see Christmas lights, and other things I have wanted to do. I also buy myself something that I have always wanted but don’t necessarily need as a form of self-love and self-affirmation.
I also engage in volunteer work because when I am helping others I feel less alone and have less time to ruminate about the past or events that are outside of my control.
I have discarded holiday traditions that did not bring me joy. I don’t go to church or make desserts with dried fruit or decorate my tree with handmade ornaments that are unsafe for my pets. I try not to buy material gifts for all of my friends. Instead, I treat friends to events such as concerts, art gallery exhibits, or museum shows we can enjoy together.
I have held onto a few traditions that have made me happy. A childhood friend used to buy me a hallmark ornament as a gift, and now I buy one for myself. I donate to a charity, and I buy a gift for a for a child in need.
I have also started to create my own traditions such as making my favorite cake and taking a break from digital communication. Each day I take time to feel grateful for the things that I have and the people and pets that help to make my life magical.
I don’t force myself to do anything I am not feeling up for, and I do not spend time with people I do not feel comfortable being around. Once I started doing this, the holidays stopped being draining, exhausting, and socially challenging and started to become relaxing and peaceful.
When I find myself feeling down, I remind myself that all situations are temporary, and the future could look very different. There may be other holiday seasons when I feel upbeat, excited, and eager to spend time with people who love me. But for now, I need to love myself, and that means doing what’s best for me.
The best thing that any of us can do this holiday season is be kind to ourselves and take care of ourselves like we would our closest friend. This is the best holiday gift we can give ourselves.
About Jen Hinkkala
Jen Hinkkala is PhD student, researcher, and teacher of arts education in Canada. She strives to understand what factors and experiences lead to higher levels of wellness, resiliency, and self-care among arts educators and students. Jen is also a life coach and specializes in self-care, well-being, time management, performance anxiety, estrangement, overcoming abuse, career paths, and anxiety. Jen runs a support group for estranged adults and a group to support personal development. Follow her here: Twitter / Blog.