By Lisa Ferentz
The holidays can be a wonderful and cozy time of year. We reconnect with those long forgotten warm sweaters that have waited patiently for us in the back of our closets. Everything we eat and drink is pumpkin flavored. We start to look longingly at our fireplaces, and even anticipate the first snowfall.
But for many people, the shift out of daylight savings and other harbingers of fall and winter create feelings of anxiety, loneliness, anger, and depression. Many therapists report an upswing in referrals this time of year, and the focus is often on the difficult feelings that colder weather, less sunshine, and the approaching holiday season evokes.
It’s not unusual for a chill in the air to cause people to turn inward, disconnecting a bit from others. But for the millions of people who grew up in a toxic or dysfunctional family, there’s a much stronger disconnection, and a deep sense of dread and “obligation,” about attending meals, religious ceremonies, and celebrations with relatives.
Often, these are emotional triggers for earlier memories tainted by parents fighting, out of control drinking, financial stress, cynicism, and intergenerational grudges. These traumatic experiences create painful associations with the holiday season, and can become even more overwhelming, alienating, and confusing when the rest of the world seems to be operating from joy and good cheer.
Anxiety and depression can be increased even more when teenagers and adults don’t know how to process or resolve these painful memories and experiences. One powerful byproduct of not having effective coping tools is to turn to self-destructive behaviors.
Do you ever wonder why people who have histories of trauma and pain seem willing, even eager, to engage in behaviors that are punitive, self-sabotaging or destructive? The answer is simple but poignant: When they hate themselves, it resonates to hurt themselves.
When they grow up with trauma, abuse or neglect — all year round and not just during the holidays — they can be left with a pervasive sense of guilt, shame, harsh inner criticism, or self-loathing. If they walk around with these feelings, self-destructive choices actually seem to “make sense” to them.
The truth is, it’s impossible to give up destructive patterns or toxic behaviors until painful life experiences can be viewed through a lens of self-compassion and empathy. Oftentimes, the meaning that gets attached to trauma holds more power than the experiences themselves.
When people believe these thoughts are true, it resonates to keep behaving in ways that perpetuate guilt, shame, and feelings of worthlessness. Bringing compassion into the equation is often the first step towards healing and being able to let go of destructive behaviors.
As self-compassion is practiced, they will begin to choose relationships that are supportive and safe, care for and protect their bodies, and work in an environment that values and appreciates their contributions. They can even choose to experience the joy of the holiday season with surrogate family members who are truly safe and loving.
When a person finds it difficult to think about their experiences in a more loving way, I encourage them to try to think about someone in their life who genuinely cares about them: a person or even a pet! Think about the messages they would give and then slowly incorporate that perspective into their own thought process.
If embracing a whole new mindset is hard, we explore just starting with, “Maybe it’s possible that it wasn’t my fault.” Even considering the possibility of letting go of self-blame softens the shame and creates an opening for self-love and true healing. Seeking professional support and guidance as well as the encouragement of loved ones is a way to create new associations and positive memories, which can be the first step towards feeling joy during the holiday season and all year long!
Lisa Ferentz is a clinical social worker and psychotherapist who has been in private practice for 30 years, specializing in adolescent and adult survivors of trauma, abuse and neglect. To learn more, visit www.lisaferentz.com.