It's the most wonderful time of the year - apparently. But that doesn't seem to fit with the conversations I keep having in therapy. People keep asking me if it's normal to feel overwhelmed by the holiday season, to feel done with it already, to feel wearied by the constant treadmill of give and take. They ask me why, if it's supposed to be so wonderful, do they feel so anxious about it, so broken down by it. Why, when everyone is telling them to be happy, they feel the opposite.
We seem to struggle with Christmas more and more these days. Articles are springing up everywhere with advice on "how to survive the festive period", with the assumption that the natural consequence of Christmas is burnout and bad feelings. When did we get to the point where a holiday designed to allow us time to connect, time to be with the people we care about, fills us with dread? And how do we stop it?
I personally have a complicated relationship with Christmas, which reflects my generally tricky thoughts around the implications of equating the giving of gifts with both love and care. Do I love my friend more if I buy her a Diptyque candle, or will she understand that the one from Tesco comes in a scent that she prefers anyway? Do children think that Santa hates them if their friend gets an Xbox and they get a teddy bear? If so, what is it about them that he hates, and how much shame and self-criticism can they swallow before next Christmas to make him love them more? Scary thoughts indeed.
These are the things that I know about Christmas, regardless of who you are or how you celebrate. With only a few days to go before "the big day," consider this your gift from me this year. It was this or socks, and I got you those last year!
Your feelings about Christmas are valid
We are under so much pressure to feel a certain way about the holiday season. Constantly bombarded with advice on what to eat, what to wear, what to buy, is it any wonder some of us struggle to know how to process it all? Christmas is complex, and you're allowed to feel excited, nervous, frightened, angry, sad, or any other way you feel about it. You can't force yourself into feeling happy about everything, and the more you try to force it the harder it can actually become. It might feel like you're "ruining Christmas," but you're not - it's your day too, and you're entitled to a say as well. So try to relax and go with what you feel might make you happy, even if it's staying in your pyjamas all day and binge-watching Netflix. Especially that, actually.
Other people's feelings about Christmas are valid too
I get it - you've spent ages planning the "perfect" Christmas and your little sister just won't get into the "festive spirit." Or, you want to spend the day feeling a bit grumpy and your partner is relentlessly decking the halls. Just as you can't make yourself feel a particular way about Christmas, you can't force others to share your feelings about the holiday. Accepting that other people have different ways of managing it will hopefully save you a lot of stress in the long run, and stop you from relentlessly pressuring other people into being actors in your movie-version of Christmas.
Do not give what you do not have - it will only cause you problems
I cannot stress this one enough, but there's a lot to unpack here. When I say "don't give what you don't have," I'm not just talking about things that you buy in shops, although that is part of it. A lot of my clients have health conditions that make everyday tasks much more difficult, such as chronic pain. Those health conditions don't magically disappear over the holidays and they often need to pace themselves and prioritise activities, which means saying no to some of the things that other people take for granted. This isn't selfish or heartless, it's a necessity that allows them to really enjoy the things that are more important to them. If you try to do everything, you will end up burning out - unfortunately, health conditions don't care about how guilty or frustrated you feel, they will limit your physical ability regardless. Being kind to yourself, and surrounding yourself with kind people who understand your limits, is a holiday blessing.
Additionally, I'm an introvert, which doesn't mean that I hate people - it means that I can feel drained by social interactions, particularly small talk. I love my colleagues, but last week we had our work Christmas party, which involved walking around a busy Christmas market, going for a meal with 30 other people, then heading to a bar for dancing. I knew that I'd be good for nothing the day after, following so much chatting and socialising, so I made sure I didn't have any plans. This meant saying no to a good friend who wanted to meet up for coffee, but I don't feel bad for prioritising my own health and I'll catch him next time he's in town.
Of course, when I say "don't give what you don't have," I am also talking about things that you buy in shops. The amount of debt that people can find themselves in following Christmas is staggering - in part due to the constant pressure to give more to those we love, and also in part due to our own feelings and beliefs about what Christmas "really means." If you struggle to rein in gift-giving, talking to a therapist might be helpful to allow you to get to the bottom of it and ditch that spending habit for good.
Whatever you decide to do this year, I hope you have a calm and peaceful day. If you have any other advice for people who struggle with Christmas, let me know in the comments. See you in the New Year!
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects