Charles Thomas: Being Sad During the Holidays

It would be great if the holidays were times of joy and celebration for everyone. But that’s not always the case. 

Not that long ago, I was talking to a friend of mine about Christmas.

“I hate Christmas,” she told me. “I’m always so lonely on Christmas.”

Sadly, my friend is not the only one who feels this way. While for many Christmas calls to mind Norman Rockwell scenes of happy families huddled around a packed dinner table, the reality for many others is quite different. Some people are estranged from their families or are going through divorces, trauma, or grieving deaths during the holiday season. Others are just overcome with the stress of trying to give their children a “perfect” Christmas or are grieving not having a child to celebrate the season with.

The honest truth is that many of us feel sad around Christmas time. If that’s where you are this year, please know that you are not alone.

If you’re fortunate enough to have never been sad during the Christmas season before, I’m glad. But know this: there will come a Christmas sometime in the future where you will find yourself filled with a melancholy very much at odds with the spirit of the season.

When you find yourself expressing sighs too deep for words during the next few weeks, what should you do to tame the holiday blues?

I can tell you from my work as a therapist that there are some very simple but effective things that you can do that will help. The first and probably most important thing that you can do is to develop a gratitude practice. 

Now I know what you may be thinking: I’m feeling miserable, Charles. I feel like my life is nothing but pain and suffering right now. How am I supposed to find things to be grateful for?

While you may indeed feel overwhelmed with recurring thoughts of all the terrible things happening in your life at this moment, that’s all the more reason it is critical to work on changing your mindset, and to push yourself to find things to be grateful for. 

And it’s perfectly fine to start small. 

Did you wake up today? There’s your first thing to be grateful for. As long as you draw breath, it means there is still hope and that things can change. Even if you are not optimistic about what the future has in store for you, are you at least a little bit curious about what the next few weeks may hold? Are there a handful of simple pleasures that you can look forward to? Maybe seeing a favorite person, or eating one of your favorite foods? 

If you’re feeling sad this holiday season, try writing a list of at least twenty things that you are grateful for and read that list at least once a day until January 3rd. It will help. I guarantee it. 

A second thing that you should do if you’re feeling blue this holiday season is to give yourself the time and the permission to really let yourself feel whatever emotions that you are feeling. Running away from your feelings is a perfect recipe for getting stuck in those feelings like a car gets stuck in deep snow this time of year. 

Have you heard the old saying about feeling better after “a good cry?” There’s a reason that happens and that reason is because people feel better when they allow themselves to honestly express how they are feeling. If you can do that with a trusted friend or therapist, all the better, but even if you do it alone, you will almost certainly be better off than the person who tries to hold it all in. Oh, and you have my permission to talk to yourself if you do this alone. Actually, I encourage you to talk to yourself. Just don’t let other people overhear you, okay? 

One caveat about this though. There is a huge difference between allowing yourself to feel your feelings and getting stuck in endless, morose rumination. The former is supremely healthy and good for you, while the latter is not. How can you tell the difference between letting yourself feel and getting caught up in rumination? A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if expressing your feelings still feels helpful or not. If you feel like expressing your emotions is now starting to just make you feel worse, that means that you are done with this exercise and ready to move on to my final tip.

Just as physical pain is our bodies’ way to alert us to problems that we need to address, sometimes emotional pain can also be a sign that something is wrong within us that we need to attend to. As anyone who has gone to the doctor because of pain and uncovered a problem that can be fixed knows, sometimes your pain can be a gift and can provide the motivation you need to help you live a better life. 

If you are miserable this holiday season because of a broken relationship, maybe your pain is telling you that you need to work on fixing that relationship or that you need to end it. If you are sad due to loneliness, maybe your pain is telling you that you need to take concrete steps to develop new relationships in the coming year.

Sometimes emotional pain has other gifts to bestow as well.

Does the sadness or loneliness that you’re feeling right now help you to empathize with other people who are suffering? Is it possible that this pain, much like the pain of childbirth, can lead to new life? In case you have forgotten, Christmas is all about celebrating birth. Maybe the pain you’re feeling right now can help you bring something new to life this year that will benefit not only you but others as well.

I hope this holiday season brings you unexpected joy. But if it doesn’t, I hope that it at least brings you the gifts of gratitude, emotional honesty, and a plan for a better holiday season next year.

Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected]

Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.