“It’s the most wonderful DREADFUL time of the year!”
A few years ago, that’s how I felt about the holidays. It was not always so. Used to be I was the holiday’s biggest fan. As soon as the Halloween candy hit the grocery store shelves, I’d feel a pang of excitement that lasted right up until my hangover on New Year’s Day.
Turkey. Stuffing. Green bean casserole. Gaudy Christmas lights. Johnny Mathis’ velvety voice on the radio. Watching “A Christmas Story” on a loop. Frenzied Christmas shopping! Presents! Christmas cookies! I loved it all!
But when I began dealing with a chronic pelvic pain issue, my holiday joy turned to holiday dread. At the first whiff of Halloween candy a cloud of anxiety would settle over me. What was once a thrilling time of the year became a time of stress, frustration, disappointment, and resentment. Not to mention jacked up pain levels.
The good news is that with some trial and error, I’ve come to once again embrace the holiday season. In fact, my holiday love affair is stronger than ever now because of all the lessons I was forced to learn.
In this blog post, I’m going to share how I got my holiday mojo back. But because stress around the holidays is such a big topic, one that many folks, whether they’re dealing with a health issue or not, deal with, I decided to call on a professional to weigh in: Erica Marchand, Ph.D. and licensed psychologist.
Hating the Holidays
Before I get into how I learned to embrace the holiday season again, let me first explain why I soured on it. Managing a chronic pain condition forces you to take care of yourself. There’s no incentive like “no pain!” to do what you need to do to feel good. My regimen included weekly PT visits, taking my meds on time, self-treatment, frequent icing, wearing clothes that didn’t irritate my hot spots (living in Southern California meant I could wear comfy skirts and dresses practically all year long), getting enough rest and exercise, and eating well.
Once the holidays rolled around, much of that went out the window. For us (my husband and I) the holidays required travel and prolonged family visitation. For both Thanksgiving and Christmas we would spend a week or so with either his family or my family. And while it was wonderful to be amongst our tribe, the travel, having to veer off of my normal routine, and the marathon socializing was tough, and not only caused my pain to flare, but the aforementioned anxiety, which only exacerbated the flare.
Turns out I was not alone. “A lot of people with chronic pain go into the holidays with free floating anxiety on how it’s going to go,” says Dr. Marchand. “So it colors the whole experience.”
That’s why she asks her patients who are in this predicament to pinpoint the things they’re worried about the most. “Because it’s usually not everything, even though it feels like everything.” Once patients pinpoint the things they’re the most worried about, she helps them develop “survival strategies” for getting past their anxiety.
In addition to asking patients to pick out what they’re the most worried about, she asks them to name the things they’re looking forward to the most. “Realize that these are the activities you really want to do, so that if need be you can cancel or not accept other invitations. That way you’ll have the energy to feel good enough to do the things that lift you up during the holiday season. Because it’s not just about making your family happy, it’s also about enjoying yourself.”
For my part, when I sat down to really figure out what it was about the holiday season that I dreaded the most, I realized it was the pressure involved to be the perfect wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, aunt, sister, friend. I have a pathological dread of disappointing anyone, and I found that during the holidays, especially during family visits, there were a lot more people to potentially disappoint.
For example, If I was in too much pain or too tired to join in on some activity or needed some time alone to ice after a long day of sitting and wearing not so comfortable clothes (sundresses don’t fly everywhere in December!), family and friends didn’t always get it. Disappointment would ensue. Guilt would set in.
“Often we set perfectionist standards for ourselves,” points out Dr. Marchand. “Women in particular. I think it’s important to realize this and to then cut ourselves some slack. You just need to be a good enough wife, daughter, mom, sister, friend.”
“Not to mention,” she adds, “that usually we, ourselves think about our perceived shortcomings so much more than whoever we’re worried we have offended. So I think it’s important to ask ‘ Am I allowing myself to feel too guilty about this? Am I allowing a family member/friend to make me feel too bad about this? Is it perhaps okay that I had to cancel plans, and that someone is disappointed because of it? Everybody cancels plans sometimes, and not everyone always feels well. It’s okay.”
For me, once I realized this: that it was okay if someone was disappointed, and that typically they’d just process it, get over it, and still love me at the other end, it was a life changer. I realized I didn’t have to manage everyone’s reactions or emotional responses.
Empathizing with Empathy
That led me to understand that I myself had my own issues with being disappointed with my family and friends around the holiday season. I realized that when I thought they weren’t being understanding enough about my limitations, I became resentful of them. Nothing can dampen holiday cheer like good old fashioned resentment!
It was then that I realized I had to be more empathetic about empathy. It occurred to me how difficult it is to really get what someone dealing with a chronic pain situation is going through.
“It’s an invisible condition,” explains Dr. Marchand. “It’s not like you have a cast on your arm or a bandage to remind people that there’s pain involved. Humans have a really difficult time empathizing with something they cannot see or have not experienced themselves. Empathy is a difficult thing.”
For me, this reality really hit home when my husband began dealing with chronic back pain. This is a guy who is super-active and athletic. He’s one of those human energy machines who do more in a day than most people do in a week. But when he started experiencing his own invisible pain issue, I had to constantly remind myself of the reason he wasn’t doing all the stuff he normally did or why he wasn’t up for doing something I wanted us to do together. Or worse yet, he had to remind me that he was in pain, and when he did I realized at that moment in time, it had completely slipped my mind. And I’m someone who has dealt with a chronic pain issue!
Once I really really understood how challenging it is to empathize with an invisible health condition, I was able to bypass those feelings of resentment that would crop up during holiday visits.
But I’d like to stress that understanding that empathy is not easy for us human beings doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expect any to come your way. “It’s reasonable to expect empathy from the people in your life, but we sometimes have an idea what a supportive response is, and when people don’t respond in those exact ways, but their intentions are good, we feel hurt and resentful. Instead, of going down that road, it helps to try to understand what they’re intentions are, and give them a chance to respond in a better way later.”
“I think a really good thing to keep in mind is that we have to give the family and friends of someone with chronic pain some understanding,” she adds. “It’s hard to see someone you love in pain. To be in a situation where you’re powerless to make their pain go away. We want the people we love to be well and happy. For their sake, but frankly, for ours too. We want them to feel good, so we ourselves don’t have to feel bad, so we don’t have to feel guilty, or worry, or take care of them, or any of that. It’s human nature.”
Another strategy that really helped me to get past my anxiety around the holidays was learning to be okay with setting boundaries.
“It’s important to have boundaries,” Dr. Marchand agrees. “Many of us were brought up to be very accommodating. And sometimes we can be, but sometimes, we can’t be. Think about why you’re trying to be accommodating during the holidays? Usually it’s so that the people in your lives will feel good and have a positive experience. But the only way that’s going to happen is if you are comfortable first and having a good experience.”
“It really is in everyone’s best interest for you to feel good and happy,” she adds. “Rather than being a selfish act to set boundaries, it shows some team spirit! Because that will allow you to be the best host/guest, and give you the best possible outcome.”
But what about the people in your life who are just never going to get it no matter what? Like Aunt Edna or Cousin Eddie who complain about you leaving the party early or hassle you for your lousy Christmas shopping efforts (Gift cards for everyone!)
“The first thing is to recognize who those people are in your life,” Dr. Marchand says. “Like we’ve talked about, it’s easy to take on a lot of responsibility to manage other people’s emotional responses and discomfort with another person’s pain. So it can be easy to take it on and overlook when it’s actually someone else’s personality.”
So I think it’s important to note ‘Is this a person who is always unhappy with me?’ Or ‘Is this a person who is frequently grumpy about other things? Is this a person who frequently responds to me impatiently or unkindly?’ And those are cues that it probably isn’t about you or your pain. A lot of it is about them being a difficult person.”
And from there you sort of set up a little emotional distance from the difficult people in your holiday sphere, she advises. “When I’m with a person like that, I envision myself in a bubble where I can observe that person’s reaction and my reaction, but there is some distance. They don’t get to get into my bubble. And I can sort of narrate the process, like Aunt So and So is getting pissy again, now she’s frowning, now she’s complaining about me in some way. Narrating the process gives you some observational distance from it. You don’t have to fix it or control it.”
So that’s how I learned to love the holidays again. I hope my experience helps you if you’re walking the fine line between holiday cheer and holiday fear. And hey, if you have any of your own “survival tips” for getting through the holiday season, please share in the comments below! I can always use more!