By definition, the world holiday means: a day of festivity or recreation when no work is done. If that is how this time of year feels for you, please come find me and tell me all your secrets. It seems like no matter what I do (or don’t do), I am working harder than ever. In fact, “festive” would be the last word I would use to describe my day-to-day attitude.
It wasn’t always this way. Like many midwestern kids who were raised in an affluent suburb, I became giddy as soon as Halloween was over. The holidays meant fireplaces, troublemaking with cousins, grandma’s sweet potato pie, riding four-wheelers in the woods and, obviously, presents.
But, as we age, the subtext of this time of year transitions from blissfully ignorant and playful to something that is a little more complex. In extreme cases, we trade the word giving with obligation. We fret and worry that we’ll fail to meet expectations. Family members that formerly instilled a general sense of annoyance are suddenly increasingly repulsive. Instead of crawling into bed after a family get-together with joyous exhaustion, we fix a stiff one and sit on the couch with our brows furrowed.
Nearly every industry capitalizes on this confusion by advertising the need to take time out for yourself around this time of year. It’s as though they know we’re all running around with fake smiles on our faces, feeling depleted on the inside because we’ve exhausted our emotional resources the moment the Thanksgiving turkey hit the table.
To make matters worse, we know darn well that we could have it much, much worse. There is a lot of poverty, pain, fear and violence in the world right now. We shouldn’t feel so affected by a little family drama or stress when we have it so good, right? Isn’t perspective supposed to make us feel better?
For me, it didn’t. So, after I moved from Minnesota to New York City, I took what I felt would be the next logical step. I stopped going home for the holidays. Thanksgiving and Christmas would be spent either completely alone or with friends.
Problem solved, right?
Now, before I go any further, we need to own and recognize our privilege. You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have access to the kind of choices and financial freedoms that align with a person of privilege. The fact that I can choose to not spend the holidays with my family indicates that I have options. Options that many people do not and may never have. I recognize this and fully see the irony in the context of this story. But hear me out.
As I write this, I have missed the last three holiday seasons. At first, it was exhilarating. I didn’t go anywhere I didn’t want to. I slept in. I ate just as much as I wanted and didn’t feel the pressure to eat more because I didn’t want to offend anyone. I only stayed places as long as I wanted. I went back to work on Monday feeling refreshed and grateful for my ability to make choices for myself when I’d previously felt so emotionally hungover I could have napped for the whole week.
But this year, things feel different. Family drama is at an all time high, and I’m in another time zone. I should feel free. Instead, I feel like a selfish coward. The novelty of being alone has worn off. In its place I feel a deep sense of guilt and helplessness. These translate into loneliness. I’ve essentially traded in one form of emotional stress for another.
So maybe it’s not the holidays. Maybe it’s me.
I started asking myself: what do I need to do to be okay during this time of year? I’m not even talking about being blissful and overflowing with joy. I just want to be okay. Less guilty and self-loathing and more even-keeled.
As it turns out, this is the same question we need to ask ourselves during any time of the year when we feel stressed. We can’t make decisions about how to solve the larger problems in our lives when our nervous systems are in a state of dysregulation. The synapses in our brains can’t make healthy, self-supporting connections if we’re living off the chemicals that are spewing out of our parasympathetic nervous system. So in these moments of dysregulation, we have to ask, What do I need in this moment? A deep breath? A slight shift in perspective? A short walk? A long run?
When we answer that question and take that small step toward regulation, we can find that sense of okay and we can decide, from that place, how to make it better. We, as humans, aren’t built to go from one end of the spectrum to the other. But our society has taught us.
Perhaps the holidays are designed to be challenging. Cultivating a sense of gratitude and joy seems simple, but it’s not always easy. So, maybe that’s the point. Without the darkness, we would not appreciate the light. And instead of trying to build Rome on Christmas Eve, we could all just keep trying to answer that slow-burning question: “What do I need to do for myself right now, in this moment, to be okay?”