It’s Christmas…!!! Ugh.
How do you feel about Christmas?
December can be really tough. It’s a frenzied crescendo that some people adore. Others find it really difficult. And most fit somewhere in between.
There’s a lot of fuss, which for some people is frustratingly focused on just one day.
It’s a lot of work, for something that’s over quickly.
Expectations are high. Pressure builds. And stress levels can go through the roof.
Meanwhile it might feel like you’re fighting off one bug after another.
The disruption in your normal routines can be a real challenge if you’re already struggling with your mental health. Not to mention the financial pressure. And the impact on your mood of all that over-indulgence.
If you had a difficult childhood, you might not have those lovely memories that everyone else seems to hold so dear.
If you’ve lost someone close to you, facing Christmas without them can be really painful.
And even if you love Christmas, some of this difficult stuff is bound to be a part of it sometimes.
The pressure to have a great time
Despite all of this, many of us have an image of a special or magical or even (eek!) “perfect” Christmas.
Often we feel the pressure to be in the “right” mood. “Cheer up, it’s Christmas!”
Images of Christmas as a romantic time seem to be everywhere, which can put huge stress on couples.
Being alone at this time of year can be particularly tough.
Or if you’re a parent, the pressure to make things wonderful for your kids – and maybe a house full of guests too – can feel immense.
How do you feel about Christmas?
So how does this time of year make you feel?
Do you feel happy, excited, anxious, overwhelmed, sad, lonely, fed up, or indifferent?
Maybe you feel something completely different, or a mix of these emotions? (Despite what we sometimes feel expected to experience, feelings are not mutually exclusive.)
And what’s your reaction to your feelings?
Do you feel pleased, disappointed, angry, guilty, or ashamed about how you feel?
Do you ever feel guilty about how you feel?
Feeling guilty about feeling miserable or grinchy is a very common experience.
We often feel like our feelings are wrong, or that we are somehow at fault for experiencing them.
It might help to understand a bit better the purpose of our feelings, and the best way to respond to them.
What are feelings? (And why are therapists so interested in them?)
I like to think of our feelings or emotions as the human body’s messaging system. They’re the body’s way of communicating its response to what’s going on around it.
So in the most basic way, if you see danger, you feel frightened. This is one of the easier feelings to identify, as you might shake, sweat, feel sick, dizzy, notice your mouth go dry, your breathing speed up and your heart race.
It’s difficult to ignore that particular message.
Some feelings are much more subtle, but they are identified in the same way: by paying attention to your body.
Thinking and feeling
Luckily, though, we’re smart creatures who don’t just act on instinct. We are also able to think. And thinking is just as important as feeling.
The reason for the clichéd image of the counsellor always asking “and how does that make you feel?” is not because therapists are obsessed with feelings.
It’s because most of us in our culture have been taught to think quite effectively.
What we often haven’t been raised to do quite so well is to pay attention to our bodies’ communication systems: our feelings.
Thinking, feeling and doing
Ultimately, we are what we do. And those who report the greatest feelings of satisfaction with their lives are the ones who are pleased with the choices that they make.
The ones who live their lives in line with their values.
How do you do that?
By both thinking and feeling before you act.
Your feelings, like your thoughts, are just data to inform your choices. They are not in and of themselves good or bad.
When we (try to) ignore our feelings
Thoughts and feelings are, however, extremely persistent, as anyone who has ever tried not to think of an elephant will know.
(Still picturing it, aren’t you? 🐘🐘🐘)
You might try not to acknowledge a feeling deliberately, because you think you shouldn’t feel that way.
Or you might do it without even being aware of it, because you weren’t brought up to recognise your feelings.
Either way, feelings are persistent, and they have a way of morphing into other feelings that we do recognise in an attempt to get our attention.
The most common of these are anxiety (more frequent in women, who have been often been socialised not to show anger) and anger (more common for men who have mostly been socialised not to show fear.)
All of your feelings are OK
So if you feel miserable or overwhelmed, or you think “I wish all this fuss would just stop!” pay attention, but don’t berate yourself.
Remember how when you tried to stop thinking about an elephant you could think of little else? Well if you try to stop hating Christmas, or feeling sad or lonely or angry, your system is unlikely to give up easily on that either.
It’s OK to feel bored, frustrated, or disappointed.
It’s OK to think we’d all be better off not bothering.
Both feelings and thoughts are temporary. Let them pass through. What matters is what you do.
But my feelings are overwhelming
I often talk to clients about letting go of trying to control their thoughts or feelings.
I recommend that they practice just noticing them, sitting with them without judging or trying to control them.
Sometimes they look worried.
If you’ve been trying to control your feelings, it’s probably because they are uncomfortable, upsetting, worrying, or even frightening. It’s understandable that you would be nervous that those feelings might overwhelm you if you stop trying to control them.
If this sounds like you, bear in mind that your emotions will have been making themselves heard one way or another already.
Having said that, I have three suggestions for you:
1. Set a time limit
Could you set aside 20 minutes each day to let yourself pay attention to your body’s messaging system, sit with your feelings and focus on identifying and accepting them, without trying to change them?
Once the time is up you might like to consider whether you want to do anything differently over the next 24 hours. (That’s the process of feel > think > act in action.)
2. Label your emotions
During that time, as you sit with your feelings, see if you can name them. Research has found that people who are better at recognising and labelling their feelings have better mental health, greater satisfaction with their work lives and relationships, and fewer physical symptoms like headaches and backaches.
There are many excellent resources available online to help you expand your emotional vocabulary, including this list from Dr Jonice Webb.
3. Get professional help
If you feel overwhelmed by the strength of your emotions, or find it difficult to make sense of them, you might like to consider getting some help with this from a professional counsellor.
Meeting your own needs
Often what your feelings are trying to communicate to you is something about what you need.
My wish for you this Christmas is that you pay attention to how you’re feeling and think about what it is telling you about what you need.
With that information, I wish you the courage to make choices that are right for you, while respecting the needs of others. That might mean having a soft drink, going for a walk, declining an invitation, reaching out to a friend, or having an early night.
Go easy on yourself. You can only do your best.
I’ll be back in the new year.