Tag Archives: holidays

What Remains; On Memory and Holiday Rituals.

I sometimes ask my patients who are young adults their favorite memories about holidays over the years. Their recollections never include gift cards, luxury resorts, electronics, or expensive gifts. In fact, what they describe are snapshots in time, personal and family memories and rituals. Nostalgia derives from two powerful words from Ancient Greece: Nostos (Memory) and Algos (Ache).

A few recent conversations:

    • A quiet day together as a family. Everyone lounging about in pajamas and doing pretty much nothing except enjoying a peaceful day away from everyday responsibilities.
    • Putting up ornaments. Decorations that have been collected over the years, some homemade, those from travels, historical keepsakes.
    • Eating special foods. Cannolis, homemade puddings and breads, a Chinese food feast, a breakfast casserole saved for special occasions, clients frequently tell me about a cultural favorite or personally beloved meal and its significance.
    • Volunteering. Memories of working together as a family for food pantries, churches, neighborhoods, and community centers to serve other families was one of the most vivid experiences described.
    • Visiting. In communities where families live close by, going to several homes of relatives and neighbors and being welcomed by delicious food and laughter at each house.
    • Lights. Walking or driving around and looking at light displays is a fond memory for many clients. From Diwali to Midnight Mass, the flickering of candles and lights creates a glow that is indelible.
    • Fetes. One family has carved out the day after Christmas as a unique yearly celebration. They gather for a decadent seafood feast mouthwateringly anticipated every year, where everyone pitches in to cook and clean.
    • Family photos. Young adults show me pictures of their family gathered together for a yearly photograph; on a staircase, at the table, by the tree, in the yard. As the years go by, seeing familiar faces aging can have a lot of impact, and later, the missing faces.
    • Road trips. Taking long family road trips together are both humorous and slightly hellish memories for many. Enforced togetherness on the way to see other family members or take a vacation can be a challenge. One of the families I work with is driving over 2000 miles in the next 10 days to see loved ones, a potential plot for sitcoms. How to stay engaged and not irritated or frustrated is a family challenge. And Memory-Making.
    • Love from a distance. From the use of FaceTime, to family Zoom sessions during the years of COVID-19, a new tradition in our unconscious has become connecting and celebrating with loved ones from afar.

The beauty of personal and family rituals is part of our neuropsychology. Also see The Neuropsychology of Nostalgia

A mental health perspective on the season

Someone asked me today why I always say ‘Have a Peaceful Holiday’ in my writings. I don’t say Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas. The desire to wish sincerely for another to have a season that is personally significant is absolutely wonderful. It’s a desire to connect.

What would it mean to approach this festive time of year from a mental health or trauma-informed perspective? How should we greet people and wish them well in a way that does not inflict hurt?

One of my clients says that the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is the MOST _____ time of the year.

The most stressful.
The most triggering.
The most binge eating and drinking.
The most expensive.
The saddest.
The most hectic.

The most disappointing after engaging in wishful thinking about one’s familial relationships.

Another client tells me he spends every brain cell he has trying to stay sober between November 20 and January 2.

Yet another wishes that she could just sleep through the entire season and wake up in January.

Though happy and merry are synonyms, they actually have different connotations. Merry implies a degree of revelry that is missing from happy, which tends more toward quiet contentment. Merry was actually slang for inebriation in the 18th and 19th centuries. Not everyone is merry and it’s invalidating to assume that. And not everyone is happy.

The desire for personal faith and ritual is nearly universal. The context is uniquely individual. There is agency to say whatever you want to say; but know that each word has connotation. Language is life.

I wish you peace, joy, love, and health this season.

See also:
Personal Praying May Boost Mental Health
How to talk to your family about mental health.

Holiday Hurts

It’s happening again. It’s that time of year where we gather around a table, be it among family or friends, to reconnect, catch up, and have terse conversations about politics. As a lover of psychology in all its forms, I personally have a complex relationship with the holidays. I’m also aware of all the unique family dynamics that can make them so painful for many LGBTQ+ people. Many of my clients dread holidays.

I tend to get asked a few common questions around the holidays: How do I put up with my homophobic relatives? How do I cope with having to be back in an environment where people knew me before I came out/transitioned/identified a certain way?

Quickly Identify Queer Allies
These include: ambiguously lesbian aunts, Gen Z cousins who haven’t yet learned hatred, family dogs, cats (they are generally disdainful of mean people). This is about comfort, not politics. Find them. Cling to them.

Fabricate an Alternate Identity
When your nosy relatives ask about your life, tell them that you’ve since become a mariner/covert agent and your life belongs to the sea and security now, rendering their question irrelevant. Scowl through dinner. This may sound blithe: The underlying theme is that your life is your own and nobody’s business unless you choose to share.

Redirect Any and All Conversation Back to the Food
Bon Appetit has prepared you well for this moment: if someone gets a little too intrusive about things you’d rather not divulge, say something like, “I wasn’t sure Carla Lalli Music of Bon Appetit could make crispy potatoes work as a holiday side but now that I’ve tried it myself I’m fully on board.”

Stay Home and Get Food With Friends
This is fine. If you, like many LGBTQ+ people across the country, are being expected to put yourself in a place where you know you’ll be subjected to being misgendered or homophobia, then entertain the idea that maybe they don’t deserve your presence.

Keep Your AirPods in
Music calms. That is all.
Maintain Your Support Network

The reality of the situation is that being around people who make you feel worse about yourself (regardless of their intentions) is a difficult thing to endure. Let some of your close friends know about your situation and let them know you might be reaching out if things get overwhelming. Reminding yourself of your identity outside the context of people who may not “see you” as you are can help you get through this brief, frustrating window of time.

Remember Your Progress Isn’t Going Anywhere
Even if you love your family dearly and the holidays are “fun,” it can still be stressful to put yourself back in an environment that reminds you of the version of yourself before you came out or realized who you were. It can put you back in your old shoes and make you feel like you’re that person all over again. Your hard self work isn’t being erased. You’re just in a challenging space. So try to put those fears to bed, accept that being “home” can be confusing and anxiety-inducing, and make yourself a second plate. Stay at a hotel if you need to.  You’re going to be just fine.

Families and Holidays – How to Navigate.

While holidays and family get togethers, virtual or in real life, can be very joyful, may have treasured rituals and traditions, and bring people together from their busy lives, they can also be pitfalls for potential hurt.

Have realistic expectations
As refreshing as it would be if your father didn’t criticize your outfit this year, or your mother didn’t mention your weight, they probably will. Don’t expect people to change when they have behaved in the same way for years. Having expectations can lead to feelings of upset.

Keep potentially upsetting topics off-limits
Politics and religion are obvious, but people also bring up sensitive subjects without thinking about how they might affect others. “Are you ever going to get married?” Or “ when are you going to have a baby?” may seem harmless, but more likely than not, it will strike a nerve. Plan to keep conversation conflict-free by avoiding potentially sensitive topics, or simply ask what’s new and take it from there.

Set your emotions aside. Except empathy.
Put your emotions aside when talking to older family members about racism or current policy/events – remember that you are changing the worldview they have been surviving by. Without them, we would not be having the discussion.

Relatives who rehash old arguments or bring up past mistakes.
Unfortunately, there’s something about families coming together around the holidays that sometimes seems to make people eager to bring up old hurts, arguments, and mistakes. Try to move to another topic, but if they continue, you can firmly say, “I’m not talking about that, there are so many things to talk about.“

Become a Participant Observer
Psychologists use a research technique called participant observation, meaning that they join groups of people in order to watch and report on whatever those people do. Observe family members as if you’re collecting data for a research study. Almost any group activity is interesting when you’re planning to describe it later as an observer.
Accept that the only thing you can control is your reaction
You can’t stop people from bringing up controversial or hurtful subjects or asking rude questions, but you can monitor and modify your own reactions. No one can force you to engage in a negative conversation.

Don’t drink too much
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Some people become aggressive or argumentative when they’ve had too much to drink. Avoid people who have had too much to drink, and don’t engage in arguments.

Be active
It’s difficult to be drawn into an argument when engrossed in an activity that requires concentration, physical activity, or laughter. Play a game, go for a walk, or watch an engrossing holiday movie.

Practice gratitude
Take a time-out and think about all you have to be grateful for: a delicious meal, a warm home, good health, a close friend, your sweet companion animals, or a sunny day. Anxiety can be diminished by focusing on the things we enjoy and value.

Bring or have a happy reminder
Looking at a favorite photograph, a funny or encouraging text from a friend, or anything else that makes you smile can go a long way toward relieving stress.

Take a deep breath, or ten
Can’t physically leave a stressful situation? You can always focus on your breathing. Take ten slow, deep breaths, focusing on breathing in and out. Deep belly breathing has been shown to be a powerful stress reliever.

It’s helpful to follow up on family events by debriefing with someone you love. If your brother really “gets” you, call him after a family dinner you’ve both survived. If you don’t trust anyone who shares a shred of your DNA, report to a friend or therapist. When you are able to discuss hurtful, awkward, or just plain awful exchanges with another person who loves and accepts you, it helps to take the sting out.

Home alone, or a socially distanced holiday that is meaningful

Loneliness can peak over the holidays, and especially so if you are feeling isolated from friends and family. But there ARE some things that you can do that help create a time that feels personally significant.

Even if you have no plans, make a plan. Waking up to a feeling that there is nothing to do can increase feelings of loneliness. I would even suggest working out a sample schedule.
8am: Wake up and meditate, stretch, breathe.
9 am: Go for a walk or spend some time in nature. Observe the beauty of the trees and plants in winter. You don’t usually have a chance to revel in the luxury of observation.
10 am: Cook a scrumptious breakfast. Make a frittata, Crab Benedict, shrimp etoufee, something you would not normally make for yourself. You can spoil yourself, it’s not just something you need to make for others.
11-100pm: FaceTime or call loved ones. 
1pm: Watch a movie in bed or read a great book, wearing pajamas
3 pm: Take a nap, no more than an hour, you don’t want to sleep the day away and later feel like you did nothing special.
4 pm: Start to prep dinner
5 pm: Have a good cry or journal; it’s ok to let it out.
6 pm: Open a really nice bottle of red wine etc.
7 pm: Eat dinner. Savor.
9 pm: Take a bubble bath; listen to soothing podcasts or audiobooks.
10 pm: Slather on your most decadent lotion, wrap yourself in your softest blanket, hug yourself. See my article on the power of the self hug.

You Do You
This is the best day possible that you can fully treat yourself to doing anything and everything just for you. Have a spa day at home, listen to your favorite music, spend time reading, reflecting, relaxing.

Decorate Your Space For The Holidays Anyway
A festive atmosphere goes a long way, even if you’re alone.
Get festive-smelling candles to fill the house with the scent of whatever you associate with the holidays. Our olfactory senses are most tied to memory, so candles can really help wrap you in the joy of past gatherings.

Reach Out
A lot of people are going to be on lock down this holiday so be proactive in reaching out to friend’s to see what their plans are. You may not be the only one feeling lonely.

No Pedestals Required
Stop putting “the holidays” up on some sort of pedestal like they’re supposed to be this amazingly perfect, beautiful time of the year. Yes, the holidays are a wonderful time to connect with friends and family but that doesn’t mean they HAVE to be just about that. There’s this idea that the holidays are supposed to be perfect. Try not to mythicize it all.

Plan A Virtual Get Together With A Friend Or Two
Watch a movie together while distanced; eat a meal together; have cocktails together while listening to some great music together. You can take turns picking songs.

If you can, try to find a soup kitchen or charitable organization that is accepting volunteers. This will take some proactive advanced planning due to Covid restrictions but the work will be worth it. Many organizations and shelters are very grateful for people who put together packages of goods to drop off, or even give out at the site.

Holiday feels are OK

Holiday feels are OK

Last 5K, Burke Lake Park, Virginia, Fall 2019
  • Gratitude for technology and social media so we can see our loved ones
  • Sad that the holidays will look different this year
  • Lonely that you don’t have plans
  • Guilty for spending too much time watching social media
  • Angry at people who are not taking the pandemic seriously
  • Jealous of people who live with loved ones
  • Worried for small and local businesses
  • Yearning to be able to hug loved ones
  • Grateful that you don’t have to go to holiday parties or spend a lot of money
  • Scared for loved ones who could get sick
  • Exhausted from all of the video calls you’ve had to do all year
  • Weary of figuring out meals every single day, at home

Feel all the feels.

Eight tips to fight loneliness during holidays

Tis the season when we presumably spend our days sipping hot cocoa, eating delicious food, gifting, and doing all sorts of holiday fun-ness with our loved ones, these days, virtually. It’s the jolliest time of year. At least, that’s the lovely picture we’re all marketed for the holidays. The unfortunate reality is this sentimental holiday scenario is anything but the norm.

For many people, this time of year can be a painful reminder of the things they’re not surrounded by. Loneliness happens. And the painful feeling may grow, until you’re convinced you’re destined to be a lonely hermit whom no one wants to be around.

Part of that reason is simply because of our cultural expectations around what the holidays SHOULD be like. When we set our expectations to be one thing, and the reality is something different, we can see it as less than.

Think, for instance, about all of those holiday Hallmark family films that focus on the heartwarming ~feels~ that come from quality time with the fam.

The reality is, though, your IRL or virtual version could easily not match what you see on the screen or with what your neighbors with their beautiful lights and decorations might be experiencing. Coping with the loneliness and holiday blues can be challenging.

Mental health tips:

Recognize how much stress you might be under
Since the holiday season is short and goes quickly it creates a sense of urgency and overwhelm, making you feel like there’s so much to do and so little time to get everything done. Expectation is also a huge cause of stress during the holidays. Everything from holiday decorating to shopping and gift giving come with expectations that are most often unrealistic which causes you to stress about measuring up to those expectations whether they are your own or ones held by family and friends. When people get stressed or feel overwhelmed they can begin to feel alone in their struggles.

Comparison is the thief of joy
People can feel less than, especially when they see everyone else seemingly ‘happy’ and having everything under control. Social media can be a huge culprit of making it seem that everyone else has it all together except you with those happy/perfect pics. Even though social media is for “connecting” with others it can actually do the opposite and make you feel less connected and more alone especially when you compare your life to those you see. Try limiting time on social media.

Don’t isolate yourself, no matter how tempting
When people feel lonely, sad or are struggling they may tend to isolate themselves or feel unmotivated to reach out or interact with others. They may also feel unworthy of someone’s time and that they would burden or inconvenience others by asking them to participate in an activity or by sharing their feelings. They get caught up in their low self-esteem and negative thoughts, and choose to isolate instead of virtually socialize or reach out. The best way to stop and change negative thoughts is by choosing to see them for what they are-as mental distortions, rooted in fear, self-doubt and low self-esteem. Their purpose is to keep us from pursuing relationships and opportunities.

Self compassion
Please ask yourself if this is a kind thought you are telling yourself. Flip the negative self statement to a positive thought, for example if you are struggling with worth and feelings of deserving ask yourself “Who am I not to deserve this?” Start repeating “I am worthy” multiple times throughout the day and you will begin to believe it and act from a place of feeling worthy and deserving. The more you practice positive thinking, the more empowered and less lonely you will feel. I actually have my patients write this down on index cards and carry it around to look at throughout the day. 

Process and be in your feelings
It’s okay to feel sad and to let yourself feel lonely. Everyone has bouts of loneliness at times and often it’s because family may be far away or maybe right now you don’t have a significant other or kids. Spend some time fully feeling your feelings until they dissipate. You can do this by practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness teaches you how to be aware of your feelings, to feel them in your body and to allow and accept them without creating a narrative around them. It is OK to cry or feel an intensity of emotions, and in accepting and inviting these feelings to be present they dissipate and more calm and peace prevails.

Engage in the practice of opposite action/emotion
Practice opposite emotion and action, derived from Buddhism, to change your mood by engaging in behavior that is opposite to what your current emotion is pulling from you. For example, if you are angry and feel yourself tensing up, then try to open your posture and uncross your arms. Stretch your body for release. Similarly, if you are feeling sad and lonely and want to withdraw, then make a point to reach out to friends or watch a funny or well loved movie to help mitigate sadness.

The theory behind the skill I teach in my clinical practice to patients that I call OPPOSITE EMOTION is that every emotion is accompanied by an urge to engage in certain behaviors and these behaviors perpetuate the emotion. For example, the most common action urge for anxiety is avoidance. The more you avoid something you fear, the more intense your anxiety will become, and so approaching what you fear will help reduce anxiety both because you learn the situation is okay and because you aren’t continuing to reinforce your fear by avoiding the situation. It is important to note that the goal is not to push away your emotion or suppress it, but rather to work on cultivating another emotion.

Community service and volunteering
Use your energy and resources on behalf of people who need your help. Volunteer to tutor students, as many are struggling with virtual learning; help at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, make food for an elderly neighbor, or volunteer at an animal shelter.

Appreciate what you have
Send cards or a personal note to everyone who means a lot to you. Thanksgiving is about showing gratitude. Make your holidays a spiritual growth time, such as creating a personal ritual, prayer, meditation, or virtual gathering with close friends. I have several friends who have a personal altar at home, and engage in prayer to their ancestors and loved ones who are not present. Find something for you that is meaningful. 

Love and Boundaries: Coping With the Holidays

The holidays are upon us, which usually means family and friends.

Either way, in the current state of the world you’re bound to have someone in your life who is just not taking the virus (and the precautions to slow the spread of it) seriously. And while you might feel like you have to avoid them or cut them out of your life until the pandemic is over, there are a few things you can try before resorting to more extreme measures.

Since this is a problem all too many of us (myself included) are dealing with, I was recently asked by the Virginia Psychological Association to give advice on how to manage this stressful dynamic. What should you do, when people around you are not taking the virus seriously? Please also see my article on cognitive dissonance which discusses why it’s hard for many people to change their mind. 

Set boundaries.
Remember that setting boundaries is essential for your mental and physical well-being. You can set boundaries around everything from what you will talk about and engage with, to what you are willing to physically do with someone who is not taking things seriously. Setting a boundary with family members and loved ones may feel uncomfortable at first but it is a healthy way to let others know what they can expect from you. When you let friends and family members know your expectations, it’s likely they will feel confused or even upset or angry at first. But it’s important to communicate your needs and expectations in a way that is respectful but firm.

If you don’t want to spend time around people who don’t wear masks in public, tell that person that you really value them in your life and want to spend time with them, but in order to continue doing that you either need them to wear a mask or you’ll only connect with them over Zoom or FaceTime call if they won’t. Or, if you live with family members who aren’t wearing masks in public, tell them you will keep your distance from them (to the extent you can) while you are both at home.

You can only control yourself, you can’t control others, so establishing those boundaries helps to protect your mental health and reduce your stress. You don’t have to take responsibility for educating family members on safety measures, and you can take that energy and time and use it for self-care activities such as exercise, breath work, meditation, sleep, walking outdoors.

Try to avoid getting angry or using critical language when you bring up concerns. I have one patient who has told me that when he sees people without a mask, he becomes enraged. He, and his parents, with whom he resides, have underlying vulnerable health issues, and the apparent selfishness of others not wearing a mask makes him incredibly angry. Unfortunately, people don’t listen to you when you’re angry. Leave out the criticism in your conversations.

In sum, it’s not your responsibility to educate your family members, friends, significant others, or roommates on safety measures. But if you do want to share information with them or discuss safety measures, you can do so in a way that communicates your concern without criticism.

When speaking with a loved family member about concerns such as COVID, it is always best to start from a place of love and support. Ask what you can do to help instead of criticize. When was the last time you felt like doing something someone asked if it was delivered in a tone that was condescending or negative?

It’s much better to say, may I buy you a cute mask, instead of: You’re going to die or kill someone, if you don’t wear a mask. I personally have several really pretty masks that have been made for me by clients who are talented, in addition to my regular PPE.

It’s also helpful to use “I” statements when communicating with friends and family, so they understand where you are coming from. For instance, saying – Hey, I am worried about your health, and so I don’t want to potentially expose you to the virus if I come over, or “Hey, I’d love to come to your baby shower or wedding, but I don’t want to take the risk that I might get you or someone else sick.

Remember, that some people are resistant to change. So know when it’s time to stop pushing them. It isn’t your job to preach to others about what they should be doing; you can only control what you are doing. With that in mind, if you still are not comfortable with how your family or friends are dealing with things, you can respectfully decline to spend time with them physically until things are better.

It IS your duty to protect yourself and your health and well-being. Let them know what you are and aren’t comfortable with, and if that’s a Zoom call instead of an in-person dinner party, tell them. If they really respect you and want to spend time with you, they will do what it takes to see you, even if it’s not IRL.
I’m heading to a zoom baby shower for my niece tomorrow, please be safe.

Happy Thanksgiving week.

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