Whether you celebrate or not, the holiday season can be stressful for many reasons. From experiencing difficult emotions like grief, anger, or resentment that seem to resurface out or nowhere, to the pressures of making everything perfect for everyone, there’s a lot of opportunity for emotional burnout.
I’m no stranger to painful emotions re-emerging around this time of the year. Christmas used to trigger in me the feelings of loneliness and guilt for years, following my move across the country and away from my family and friends.
Moving was a conscious choice my husband and I made soon after we married. We were no strangers to uprooting our lives—we left behind most of our families, friends, and even parts of ourselves moving to America a decade earlier. But it’s one thing to do that when you’re single, and another when you’re growing as a new family and don’t have your parents and siblings supporting you through the thick and thin of building a life.
One of the unintended consequences we had not considered was not being with our families around the holidays, birthdays, and other important moments in our lives. Once we had children, it was often impossible to travel home, and as much as we tried to make the best of it, holidays had an underpinning of sadness, isolation, and depression.
The most painful for me was that our children had no grandparents, aunts, or cousins around throughout most of the year—and this pain was magnified around the holidays.
In the early years especially, I felt an enormous amount of guilt for taking that feeling of community and familial support away from my children. The sadness was often crippling. I tried to put on a happy face for my babies, but inside I was often lonely and depressed.
I also had to face the mounting sense of abandonment I felt every time my family couldn’t or wouldn’t spend the holidays with us. For many years I felt unsupported, unimportant, and unloved. This only brought my childhood experiences of feeling neglected and unseen to the surface. Eventually, I realized I had to heal my past in order to shift how I experience the present.
Over the years I learned to step back from my pain and look at it differently. My perspective slowly shifted as I learned to set healthier boundaries, have more realistic goals and expectations, resolve my past traumas, reach out for support, and take care of my own needs. Mindfulness and the willingness to do the work is what made it all possible.
1. Practice mindfulness.
When things get hard, we must try to accept and allow what is happening in the moment—this is the core of mindfulness. Blinders off, we can learn to observe what is happening and ride the wave of our feelings around that.
This is difficult work, so we tend to avoid it. We run in the other direction. We bury ourselves in work, get a drink to take the edge off, or turn our TV on to distract ourselves. We pretend we’re fine and we push through, thinking we’ve outsmarted our feelings. But the pain is still there, lingering, festering, ready to explode in the least opportune moment.
It’s important to practice mindfulness during less tumultuous times and learn to observe our thoughts and feelings when things are relatively easy. Then, once we build our mindfulness muscle, we can practice bringing it into more difficult moments to ride them out.
Don’t be afraid to feel your feelings—the more you resist the stronger they get. If you’re tend to get overwhelmed easily, plan ahead. Schedule time to feel bad, to rage, to cry, to talk to someone, to journal. Do it in a safe space and preferably with the support of a friend or a professional.
The goal is to feel whatever feelings you’re holding onto and release that pressure in a mindful way, so it doesn’t come out inappropriately (or misdirected) around the holiday table.
2. Validate your feelings.
Allowing, accepting, and validating your feelings is vital to emotional well-being. Whether it’s guilt, anger, or grief you are feeling, they have their place and are all valid. Neither good nor bad, our feelings are messengers—they inform us as we go about our lives. And we need to listen in.
Growing up in an invalidating environment, this was my weakest link. My feelings were never accepted, and I was often threatened to stop displaying them or I’d get in trouble. It was incredibly invalidating to have no one say, “I understand.” Instead, my displays of emotions were met with disdain, anger, and punishment. I learned to bury my feelings and disconnected from my emotional self.
As an adult, I kept looking to other to validate me. This was frustrating, and often left me feeling rejected, lonely, and insecure. Eventually, I learned to listen to my feelings and acknowledge that it was okay to feel the way I felt, that I had a right to feel this way, and that it made perfect sense I felt the way I did given what happened. I learned to allow my feelings to just be.
Let yourself feel and listen to what the feeling is trying to tell you. Maybe you need to apologize and repair a lost connection (guilt). Maybe it’s time to draw new boundaries to restore balance or protect your mental or physical well-being (anger). Maybe you need to accept that an important relationship failed and move on (grief).
Our feelings are there to guide us, to help us make the most informed decisions. The better we listen the faster we learn and recover.
3. Practice self-compassion and body-mind self-care.
We tend to revert back to our pre-programmed patterns and behaviors around our nuclear family, replaying our childhood roles and falling into habits we thought we shed long time ago. Don’t beat yourself up when this happens—it’s natural and your awareness of it is the first step to changing it. And we can start by putting ourselves first, practicing self-compassion, and taking care of our needs.
My programming was that of the perfect daughter/wife/mother who would bend over backwards to take care of everyone’s needs, to my own detriment. I neglected my own needs, both physically and emotionally. I planned elaborate menus, invited friends out of obligation, and tried to be everything for everyone: cheerful, helpful, supportive, forever patient and giving, saying “yes” to everyone but myself. It was physically and emotionally draining.
Through reflection, and a lot of journaling, I realized I was on a path of self-destruction. My overfunctioning was harming me both physically and emotionally, and I had to do something different. The one thing that made a huge difference was learning to put myself first and set healthy boundaries in my relationships with others.
It’s beautiful to have a giving personality and want to be there for others, but when we do that to our own detriment everyone suffers. Neglecting yourself is not a virtue. Everyone is responsible for their own feelings and needs—you can’t do this work for others. Your job is to take care of yourself, body, mind and heart. When you fill your own tank, you then can be there for others, but not before.
Don’t neglect yourself. Take a long, soothing bath or shower, walk your dog, eat protein-rich breakfast, spend time in solitude, bake your favorite cookies, reconnect with yourself though journaling and meditation, practice gratitude, learn to say “no,” reach out for support, take a nap. Pay attention to what you need and respond with love and nurturance.
And when you stumble, love yourself. When you make mistakes, talk too much, get sucked into family drama, lose your way—this is when it’s really important to love yourself anyway. Love your shadows and your imperfections remembering they once helped you survive. In time, you will transform them into strength, change, and growth.
4. Tap into your resilience.
You will be challenged around the holidays, that’s a given. Trust that you are strong enough to ride the waves of emotions mindfully. This shift in perspective will empower you to make better choices when faced with difficulty.
Before I built my resilience toolbox, I would get emotionally reactive to something as simple as mean comments, bickering children, or people being late, simply because I was under a lot of stress (a lot of it self-imposed).
With mindfulness, I learned to take a pause between trigger and my reaction. I watched as my body tensed, my heart started racing, and negative thoughts came rushing in. And I breathed through it, watching it change, and eventually pass. If it didn’t pass, I’d take some action to take me out of the situation and reset, like go for a walk. Or I’d ask myself, “What do I need right now?” and gave that to myself. Then, I could come back and respond, typically from a much calmer and supportive place.
Chose to be kind to yourself when you’re struggling. Learn few coping strategies you can employ in time of need: embrace yourself when you feel like falling apart, take five extra deep breaths to reset your nervous system, step outside to catch some fresh air, put headphones on and play your favorite resilience song really loud (mine is “Unstoppable” by Sia).
There are many things you can do to soothe your nervous system and strengthen your resilience muscle, practices that will help you explore, sort out, and process your emotions. Yoga, journaling, long walks, sitting in silence for five minutes every day, or dancing are all beneficial.
The point is to pay attention to your inner world, recognize when you’re struggling, and give yourself what you need to recover.
5. Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Temptations are always around—food, alcohol, binge-watching Netflix, scrolling social media, holiday shopping, etc. These are perfectly fine in moderation and often handy as a short-term break from the heaviness.
But we must be mindful of when we try to distract and numb ourselves in order to escape, because that only prolongs our suffering and delays the healing process. When we numb, we avoid vulnerability—the core of meaningful human experience—and we never resolve and move past our issues. Engage in your life consciously, be open, and accept what is. No more escaping. Trust that you are strong enough to walk through the pain and come out the other side.
I used to feel like I had to survive the holidays somehow. I was perfecting and overfunctioning to counter the internal feelings of lacking, guilt and abandonment.
It was most difficult when I was a new mom, didn’t have adequate support, and had unresolved feelings from childhood that were being triggered without my conscious awareness. These days, holidays are a mixture of joy and sadness, cherishing, and letting go, and I don’t get so easily overwhelmed by it all.
I now focus on growth and health, on building my own family traditions, cherishing sweet memories, and enjoying the moment. I no longer wallow in self-pity and feeling like a victim of circumstances, and I no longer let negative thoughts and feelings take over my head and my heart. I stay mindful, and when I stumble, I remind myself that even though I’m imperfect, I am enough.
About Joanna Ciolek
Joanna Ciolek is a self-taught artist, recovering self-critic, and mindfulness advocate. If you’re feeling stuck, burned out, or unfulfilled, join The Mindfulness Journal and rediscover your inner voice, self-love, and acceptance. For deeper self-reflection and healing work, get The Art Of Untangling, a prompt-based journal to help you overcome your struggles and transform your life. Follow Joanna on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.