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Opinion: This year, let go of the 'perfect Christmas' and choose self-compassion

Two chartered psychologists offer some helpful advice to help you avoid letting Christmas get you down this year.

Dr Jolanta Burke & Dr Trudy Meehan

CHRISTMAS IS A time of joy, happiness, good cheer, a warm family embrace, and a crackling fireplace. Simply put, a postcard Christmas. Or is it?

The reality of Christmas is often very different to how we imagined it. Christmas is also a time of loneliness, quarrels, financial strain, boredom, and general dissatisfaction for many people. It is when the helplines, such as the Samaritans, Aware, or ALONE are usually the busiest.

For many, it is a time when their deepest life-longings come to light. A longing to have a conversation with someone they loved and who has gone; a longing for the good old days that have long passed; a longing to have a “normal” family or live a different life from the one they have. Christmas is not a happy time for everyone.

So, what can you do this Christmas to survive it? Here are five suggestions to help you do it.

Make it good enough

Instead of building up the pressure over the ideal Christmas, think of what your “good enough” Christmas would look like. Consider who you would spend it with and what essential things you would do to make you happy. More importantly, however, think of what other important things you could let go of this Christmas.

Having an attitude of a “good enough” Christmas will help you leave behind all that is not working during the festive season and replace it with all that is working well. This will give you the space to notice the small things that matter and for which you could be grateful this Christmas.

Embrace the darkness

Sometimes there’s too much pressure to be positive around Christmas. Professor Alia Crum and her colleagues at Stanford University suggests that one of the best things we can do is acknowledge and own our stress.

So go ahead and embrace the hard stuff – acknowledge the pain, sigh, throw your hands in the air, shrug, roll your eyes, cry! Let it exist and feel it. Give it a name and let it be, “yeah, this loneliness I’m feeling is real, and it hurts right now”.

After you’ve embraced it, then there’s a chance to be curious about the meaning behind that pain. What does feeling lonely say about what’s important to you and what you value?

“I’m feeling really lonely now because I wish I had more friends, I value human connection, I’m going to make a plan to connect more with people in the coming year” or “I’m feeling really lonely right now because I’m isolating to protect my parents. I value their health, and I can tolerate this loneliness because I’m doing it to protect people I love”.

We tend to feel stress and distress when things mean a lot to us, so finding the meaning in our suffering is one way to carry us through it.

Practice self-compassion

Acknowledging our pain is one of the first steps in self-compassion. Just saying, “yes, this sucks!” and letting it out is essential.

But compassion is about taking action, not just empathising with the pain. So act, be kind to yourself if you find the holiday season stressful. At the very least, you can give your heart a little hug. Put your hands on your chest, let the heat of your hands warm and hug your heart.

Professor Kirstin Neff calls this a “gesture of self-compassion”. One other gesture is opening your arms as if you are giving the whole world an imaginary hug. By pretending to embrace all of humanity, Neff says that we remember that we all feel pain and experience suffering in our lives.

While our individual situation might be totally unique, all of us share the experience of suffering, and we are never totally alone in that experience.

Get out of the house

If connecting with all of humanity in a gesture of self-compassion doesn’t appeal to you, then getting some space from the people in your house over the holidays might be an excellent way to go.

Getting out in nature brings lots of positives. It will take you out of the potentially stressful situation at home, and it will also give your brain and body a natural boost.

Walking in nature, especially awe-inspiring spots helps turn off the planning (over-thinking) part of our brain and helps our brains get into a calmer state.

Experiencing awe can help us feel humble and put our situation into perspective. And if we are lucky enough to get to a forest, we might even experience the health benefits of forest bathing.

In her book “The Nature Fix”, Florence Williams documents some of the benefits of forest walks, including boosting our immunity and mood.

Create your own ritual

Christmas is a religious tradition. However, given how diverse Ireland has become, it is time to create your own rituals that will become your family’s tradition for generations to come.

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If you are vegan, avoid opting for meat look-alike products. Instead, create a new dish you will be serving in your home every year.

If you are an atheist, pick and choose the Christian and other traditions that put a smile on your face, be it a Christmas tree or crackers on the table, while adding non-religious elements into your festivities.

If you have just separated from your spouse and work through a new child-sharing arrangement, make it part of your new Christmas ritual, create your own future tradition for years to come.

Make this Christmas your own Christmas and embrace the “bah humbug” in you, as it is better than pretending to be happy when you are not. Have a non-perfect Christmas this year, and enjoy it!

Dr Jolanta Burke is a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society and a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Positive Psychology, RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences. Dr Trudy Meehan is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist registered with the Psychological Society of Ireland. She is a Lecturer at the Centre for Positivist Psychology and Health at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences.

If you need to talk, contact:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • National Suicide Helpline 1800 247 247 – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement)
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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About the author:

Dr Jolanta Burke & Dr Trudy Meehan

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