This blog explores some hard topics related to family relationships. It may bring up some difficult feelings. It also offers hope and strategies in coping with the holidays, and the difficult feelings that may come up. Trust your wisdom to know if this is something for you right now.
In the best of times, the holiday season can already be filled with an array of complex emotions. Throw in a global pandemic and many more will unfortunately be in for a very challenging holiday season. For every child falling asleep on Christmas eve, anxiously anticipating what Santa will bring them the next morning, buzzing with joy and hope, there is a child that is hiding, frozen in their room, protecting themselves from the sound of their parents fighting in the kitchen downstairs, desperately hoping that when they wake up in the morning, there will be calm, peace, no fighting, for once.
For every reconnection of a parent and child, after months, or even years of estrangement, beginning to repair the hurts of the past and move forward in a new direction, there is someone carrying the grief, the hurt, the pain of their childhood trauma, doing what they need to do to set firm boundaries with those who hurt them, knowing things will never be what they want them to be. There are many, many more experiences all the way in between what has just been described, and navigating these relationships is incredibly difficult.
I don’t say these things in any way to discount the joy, happiness, and connection that the holidays can bring. I say these things to acknowledge the deep diversity of experiences that exist within our humanity. Both the pain and the joy. The elation and the suffering. And as much as a space needs to be made to celebrate the good, a space needs to be made to acknowledge the hardships that come with this season as well.
The holidays can trigger intense hurt from our past. Many individuals carry the pain of very difficult childhoods, parents who were unable to show or give the love that was needed. As these children become adults, they begin to navigate how to heal these hurts, how to maintain, or not maintain, these parent child relationships. I want to stress that THERE IS NO ONE SIZE FITS ALL approach to healing from wounds of our childhood in adult life. Sometimes maintaining these relationships, despite the hardships and struggle, is what is needed. Sometimes, cutting one's self off from these relationships is the best thing for them. AND, just because what works for us now, does not mean this will always be what we need. What is needed to heal can change over time. Family relationships are complex.
I hope this blog can help you know that you are not alone in these difficulties. The experience of having a parent struggling with alcohol abuse and the impacts that can have on children is unfortunately all too common. This is just one example. If you are struggling with these wounds, know that you are not alone. Of course that will not make the pain go away, but perhaps it can help to make it bearable. Think about the others that may be reading this, that may resonate with how you feel, that may understand what it’s like to carry the grief, the feelings of unworthiness, unlovability, and disconnection from those who were supposed to offer just the opposite. Perhaps just take a moment to pause, and to send your compassionate energy to them. Sending a message of love and acceptance. Notice what that feels like for you to send out to these fellow humans. Now, see if you can extend that same energy to yourself. It may be harder, it may not be something you’re used to, but you deserve it. You do. Just let that simmer, and notice how you feel. Extending this compassion to self and others reminds us of our common humanity. To continue this experience, consider following this link: a meditation on the commonality of suffering: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12pKAKoK4eM&t=1s
For the next part of this blog, I’d like to expand on ways to cope with the difficult emotions that may come up this holiday season. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but consider using it as a starting point, or adding to what you already know.
Here are some other ways of wading through these complex feelings in the holidays season. I am going to break into 2 categories: 1. Emotional processing. 2. Shifting attention and direction.
1. Emotional processing means creating space for us to feel what we need to feel. To begin to take the lid off the jar of emotions we have been tightly sealing. To let ourselves be sad without judgement. To let ourselves be angry without judgement. Even to let yourself judge yourself...without judgement. Here are some ways of doing this this holiday season:
-Journalling: Name the feelings that you feel. If you name it you can tame it. Putting the thoughts and feelings that are in our mind on paper can be a huge step towards calming the chaos inside. Note the language you use. Shifting from "I am sad" to "I am feeling sad" can in and of itself create some distance from the feeling, help us interact with it ore easily. After having written what you feel, what’s going through your mind, write a second entry. This time, write this letter in response to what you just wrote. What would you want to say to yourself? How might you respond, if you were responding to a compassionate friend? What would they want to hear?
-Talk to a friend. Holding feelings inside can be incredibly difficult when we do it all on our own. Having the space of a compassionate friend can somehow incredibly lighten this load.
-Meditate. There are a number of types of meditation. Meditation allows us to learn to experience our difficult emotions, to learn to not be as afraid of them, to move from “I am overwhelmed” to “I am feeling overwhelmed, in this moment in time”. Here is just one app that you may consider exploring: https://wakingup.com/
2. Shifting attention and direction. Sometimes, the emotions are just so big that it can be too much to sit in at that moment. This is when I often use the analogy of a water tap. Emotional processing is slowly letting out the water (emotions) but sometimes we need to close it to not feel so overwhelmed. When we do this, it’s important to tell the part of ourself that is feeling overwhelmed that we will be back to give it space and love. Here are some strategies:
-Gratitude practice: What do you have to be grateful for? Get specific, it doesn’t need to be big. Look around you. In this space right now I can name 5 things: I am grateful to have the ability to write and share my thoughts with you in the hope it may help. I am grateful to be able to look out a window from the comfort of my desk. I am grateful for the peace that comes with sipping my morning coffee. I am grateful that I can open youtube and throw on virtually any song that I want as I write. I am grateful that I do not need to worry about where my next meal will come from. I am grateful for rest over the holidays.
-Do something that brings you a sense of accomplishment: wash some dishes, fold some clothes (note to self, I know what I’ll be doing after this), go for a walk, listen to a podcast, whatever it is, doesn’t need to be big, in fact, start small, those small steps are what creates the momentum for even bigger shifts.
-Exercise: Unfortunately, this is not possible for everyone, both due to Covid, and not everyone is able bodied. However, even with these limitations, ask yourself, what can I do to get my heart rate going? Maybe it’s a walk, maybe it’s running up and down the stairs. Maybe, if these things aren’t possible, it’s doing what we call “progressive muscle relaxation”. This exercise involves tensing the various areas of our body for 5-10 seconds at a time, and then relaxing them. Although not quite the same as exercising, this does work out our muscles in a similar way to weight training, and can bring a sense of calm and comfort. https://citycentrehealthcare.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Progressive-Muscle-Relaxation.pdf
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, and I want to emphasize that the goal here is not to completely alleviate yourself of suffering. If there are wounds that you have, they will be painful sometimes. I hope that these thoughts can help you bear these difficult emotions in a new way, so they do not overwhelm. I hope they can provide some reprieve, as you navigate both the difficulties, and the joys, of this holiday season.
Sending compassion to all this holiday season.