Do people really need to see a counsellor about Christmas?
I am absolutely dreading Christmas, what can I do? Reflections on surviving December.
The TV advertisements and shops start telling us how wonderful Christmas is well before the actual day. We are bombarded with images of happy families in cosy settings, people ecstatic about the wonderful, wonderful time they are having. In this imaginary Christmas-world it always snows on Christmas day, everyone is warm and well fed and the houses look beautiful. Everyone smiles, because everyone is getting on.
For many of us this is far from reality. For some that will be simply because, for cultural or other reasons, Christmas is no big deal. In fact, many of those people may well be bewildered about why some of us get so worked up about the 25th of December. Yet here I am suggesting that Christmas might be a topic that could benefit from support from a counsellor.
Why see a counsellor about Christmas? A simple answer is that it might make Christmas easier, and other Christmases from now on easier too. People see counsellors for many different reasons. Included in those reasons are anxiety, stress and concerns about relationships and boundaries. Christmas can amplify these issues for some people.
I will explore here some of the ways you can adjust your actions, thoughts and feelings in order to make Christmas easier and possibly a happier time. If the words happy and Christmas annoy you, just swap the word happy for less unhappy.
I have briefly mentioned the expectations for Christmas created by businesses and shared in the media and in shops etc. They are selling a product, and to sell more of their product they need to make people feel that the product will make them happier. In order to do that, some may suggest you are unhappy without their product. And even with those that don’t, there is that underlining image that Christmas is a specifically special time where people are happy, and families get on.
I suggest the main problem for many people around Christmas is unrealistic expectations. The expectations create a pressure to be what you think you should be. This can cause tension and frustration in itself. There is also the possibility that we see Christmas as the time that will rescue us from the boring, and the familiar, even from depression.
For example, someone who has been feeling low for a while may think putting up lights and playing music might cheer them up. And it can lift our mood, as can tasty food and baubles and visits from people we love. However, Christmas won’t cure any issues or problems. If we expect it to, we may end up feeling worse than we did before. So, be realistic. If having coloured lights worked before it may work again. If overspending for the last three years brought you a lot of misery, don’t overspend.
It really is worth reflecting on what works for you and what doesn’t.
Keep this in mind and try to create a Christmas plan which will make this year easier than last year, and hopefully next year even better. We may also be expecting too much of others, it might be worth thinking about letting people ‘off the hook’ if they don’t want to have big get-togethers or follow family traditions.
Then there’s overthinking. We used to call it stressing but now we tend to call it overthinking. Many people start worrying about Christmas in September. This is about the time that shops start selling Christmas items… If you spend, for example, two hours each week worrying about Christmas through September, October, November and up to December 25th what have you gained? Misery? A headache? Sleepless nights? What have you lost? Hours that you could have spent doing something differently.
Think about it, you could probably grasp the basics of a new language in the time many people spend thinking about Christmas. Or read some good books, have phone calls with friends, listen to music etc. Despite how it may seem, overthinking is generally a choice.
Instead, do a bit of careful planning. What will you need to do and when? Make lists and stick to them. If you really want all presents wrapped by the first of November, just make sure they are. Don’t spend September and October wanting to do it and not doing it or worrying you might not do it. Plan. And when it’s done, don’t spend November and December wondering if you should have bought something else. While it’s lovely to receive a nice gift, it doesn’t destroy your family’s lives if what they get isn’t perfect. It really isn’t worth you damaging your physical and mental health for items that will be forgotten about by March (or even taken to charity shops in January!)
Some people don’t worry about presents or the size of the turkey or having enough baubles (all of which are part of trying to be a perfectionist which is an aspect of overthinking). Many dread the social contacts. Some will dread this, because actually they are happier alone or with friends, but others because of past experiences. Whilst there may not be evidence that being short of a few Christmas decs can destroy your Christmas - for many people, sadly, being with family can be dreadful.
If you have had difficult times in your childhood or even recently with your family around the Christmas period, you are not unusual. For some people the dread of the day starts as early as those Christmas songs in the supermarket. For others, it starts in mid-December, and builds and builds. Rather than being a time of fun, Christmas can be a time of old resentments rearing up, of people who aren’t good with alcohol causing difficulties.
Every tension, every difference is thrown into the mix in a crowded living room while at least one person worries about the turkey and most everyone else worries about how they will get through the day without a row. If you believe that your Christmas day could result in violence or serious verbal abuse, consider not going. This can even involve a postponement technique such as “we have decided we can’t travel this Christmas.”
If you are seriously concerned about spending Christmas with certain people and feel pressured into doing it, talk to a counsellor. Get some support and work out what your choices are. Please avoid potentially dangerous circumstances - circumstances that you would avoid if it wasn’t 25th December.
Your particular fear may not be as serious as that, and despite concerns, you may feel morally obliged to spend Christmas with people you are related to but don’t get on with. So how can you minimise the distress? First of all, have a plan and stick with it. Give yourself a time limit, I am suggesting no more than five hours. If that sounds impossible, how about three? Think about topics of conversation that may cause conflict and avoid them. If the topics arise try to be neutral, change the subject or even say can we talk about…(and have a subject they like in mind).
Endeavour not to criticise, and don’t take criticism to heart - they have probably said it before so no need to react as if it’s a surprise. As best you can, keep yourself in the here and now, and know this will soon be over.
If you are worried about Christmas day, try to put it in perspective. It’s one day, not worth thinking about for over a month. If you have concerns about being with people who distress you, find strategies to deal with this. If strategies don’t work, accept the day and plan something different for next time. Before the time spent with ‘difficult’ relatives, talk to friends about your fears. Check in with them afterwards if possible. Write about your experiences in a journal or in a letter you won’t send.
As I touched upon earlier, sometimes Christmas can bring up bad memories. These thoughts about the past can cause us to dread Christmas. Talk to someone you trust, get their perspective. If thoughts of Christmas are intruding into your life, making you unhappy or anxious, it may be a good idea to see a counsellor. Maybe this is a good time to move beyond the bad memories and with support start to enjoy this time of the year, or at least for now, cope with it better. And so next year- you can enjoy Autumn and Winter in your own way.