For most people, Christmas is an amazing time. It takes us to a state of childlike excitement, reminding us of the cyclical nature of life as we have a chance to reminisce and relive some of our childhood dreams and experiences. The fantasy and expectation of Christmas may point to a sense of joyous family time, but to some of us the reality beyond the hollywoodish dream can sometimes be quite cruel. Far from a big happy family having a great time, Christmas can be a painful reminder of the sort of things we try to avoid along the year, like feelings of abandonment, loneliness and resentment. The seasons can also make us face unresolved interpersonal conflicts, which are often re-enacted in the centre stage of a family reunion.
It’s not a coincidence that suicide rates spike after Christmas, and that a lot of people seek the help of a psychotherapist after the festivities. It’s for this reason that I thought about compiling a simple and brief guide on how to survive 3 of the most difficult experiences I could identify that happen around Christmas. My hope is that it will help those who struggle even more around this time to think and change some of the patterns that may be happening year in, year out.
1- Loneliness: it’s very common for people to feel quite lonely around Christmas. But this loneliness is not exclusive to those who have no friends or are more recluse anyway. I believe Christmas actually accentuates the bit of loneliness we all carry within ourselves. As we see friends going home to their families, or for those who are from another country and won’t be able join their loved ones for Christmas, this can be a very lonely time indeed. But what can be done then? Well, have you considered asking some of your friends if you can join them in whatever they’re doing? A lot of people assume that everyone is busy at Christmas and that no family will want to have a stranger around, but you’ll never find out unless you ask. I have a feeling that some of us actually feel a sort of satisfaction in dwelling on how lonely we may be at this time of the year, feeling sorry for ourselves and becoming even more recluse and resentful. And in doing so we may lose the opportunity to come out and find somewhere we would be welcomed this Christmas. So it may help to acknowledge this kind of resentment, and perhaps this will bring the willingness to go out there and be bit more forward about our wish to be with someone this Christmas.
2- Abandonment: alongside feelings of loneliness, the experience of abandonment around Christmas can be quite difficult to acknowledge and deal with. Everything stops around this time, and it can feel like everyone is going somewhere else to spend time with someone else. So for those who are actually spending Christmas on their own, loneliness and abandonment go hand in hand. But it may be a good opportunity to think about how you actually feel, and if you do feel abandoned, to try and see if it reminds you of other experiences of abandonment and rejection you may have had in your life. This may help putting the abandonment aspect of Christmas into perspective, and it may help you understand how you react when you feel abandoned in other contexts of life.
3- Family conflicts: if some people dread being alone at this time of the year, others actually long for it. In the tradition of gathering the family around for Christmas, some of us are thrown into a hurricane of deeply unresolved family conflicts. The elephant in the room, things like old grudges, resentment, betrayals, hatred, etc. may be ignored for a few days, but soon enough things are likely to kick off. And much like weddings, funerals and other family reunions, Christmas can become the centre stage for the re-enactment of past battles, a failing attempt to work through issues in the wrong context. But we have to remember that families are systems, and each member plays a function in this system, like clogs in a machine. This mentality takes away the simplistic victimised way each family member may feel at times, as everyone in a family is contributing to the dynamic, be it a funcional or dysfunctional one. It amazes me to see how easily we can all slip back into old roles in a family situation. Our parents may make us feel like we are 10 years old again, or our siblings may put us down, or we may be made to feel insignificant in the family context. But how much do you feel you contribute or collude to being placed in the position and function you have in your family dynamic? And if you feel pushed or provoked, do you really have to take it all out and try to resolve it during Christmas. So perhaps it would be helpful to try and step back and think a bit before reacting in the usual way you would do. Being together with the family may also be a good opportunity to think about how you relate to others out there. Because as much as we may try to be and do the opposite of what bothers us in our family dynamics, we carry within ourselves a way of relating to others that will most likely repeat these unresolved conflicts. Whilst this may be more easily disguised in other relationships, when back with the family everything may be a bit more raw and saturated, thus harder to overlook. But try and remember that it’s highly unlikely that any family conflict will find resolution during the festivities, and that you don’t have to counter everything when you feel attacked or provoked. Like a machine, if a clog suddenly stops and reverses it will cause friction and break down. So perhaps a more easygoing approach may slow down the system and even change its direction in due time. But this requires a throughout the year kind of attention, and not just at Christmas.
So for those who are unfortunate to have a bad time during Christmas, it may also present itself as an opportunity to reassess what’s not working and to change things around, in the hope that next year things will be better. Psychotherapy can support people in this process.