The holidays are prime moment to operationalize all the self-care and self-esteem you have been diligently and painstakingly learning and practicing and re-learning and revising since the year began—and probably much longer. Unfortunately, many of us fail to marshal our best qualities this time of year due to the very circumstances in which we need them the most. To say the holidays are stressful is obvious bordering on redundant, but I invite you now to take a moment and identify what exactly are the sources of your stress—because listening to yourself the first step towards self-awareness, which we need to unlock both self-care and self-esteem.
Maybe proximity is sparking tension between family members—maybe a lack of proximity is feeding feelings of loneliness, grief, or shame. Maybe shopping for gifts is too costly in terms of money, or time, or mental energy. Maybe we struggle with the belief that we receive more than we deserve—maybe we struggle with the feeling, or the material fact, of receiving less than we need. Maybe the holidays remind of loved ones we have lost, or a happier, easier time in our lives. Maybe our relationship with our religious institutions or faith backgrounds have wavered this year and we are questioning participation, knowing it would be a loss either way. Maybe tiresome travel, endless to-do lists, and insane busyness leave us feeling depleted and resentful towards the people we love, rather than festive, joyful, and connected.
I personally relate to about 90% of that list, and I could keep going. And, spoiler alert: I do not have a quick fix for any of those. However, I recently had a conversation that reminded me of an important lesson—one I have cause to re-learn often—that is particularly poignant and true this time of year: doing the right thing—that is, behaving according to our values, whatever they are—does not always make us feel good. Every big box store commercial and Hallmark Christmas movie promises that—with the right combination of on-sale power tools and an auspicious meet-cute with a D-list leading man—you are guaranteed all the feelings of warmth, joy, wonder, serenity, and belonging that you can handle. However, in my personal and professional observation, most media and conventional wisdom fail to acknowledge an uneasy but very relevant reality: for a lot of valid reasons, and some that are random and obscure, the holidays do not feel perfectly good all the time—even when we work hard, do our best, and make wise decisions. And that is OK. That is normal. That is healthy.
Now, what is the difference between feeling good, thinking good thoughts, and doing good things? Simply, the first has to do with emotions—physical phenomena we experience in response to stimuli that are largely outside our direct control—while the others have to do with thoughts and behavior, respectively. We have more control over thoughts than emotions—we have the most control of all over behavior. In my most recent blog post entitled “‘I Think Therefore I Am’ Is Only One Third of The Story”, I illuminated the important differences between these three categories, and explained how the therapeutic process demands that we tease them apart and examine them separately. One of the reasons why therapists distinguish between these three is because emotions are often an unreliable gauge for judging ourselves, our relationships, and our circumstances.
Chasing good feelings at the expense of good behavior can lead to a lot of very dangerous places—like substance abuse or overspending—as well as many more that are generally innocuous but unfulfilling in the long-term—like social isolation or avoiding physical and intellectual challenges. So this year, in honor of the many vague platitudes about Family and Giving and What Matters Most circulating in our collective consciousness, I challenge all of you to choose a harder path: the path of identifying and paying attention to your values, practicing authentic self-esteem by living in a way that is compatible with those, and—hardest of all—make your holidays merry and bright by giving yourself credit for little wins of good behavior rather than relying on big dividends of emotional gratification. Those are great—and necessary, and wonderful, and I do not begrudge anyone enjoyment of them—but alone they are insufficient for a good holiday season and a good life.
One of the triggers that gnaws at my resolve to live according to my values this time of year is the incessant cacophony of what I consider to be some very dumb Christmas music: it is on TV, on the radio, in ever store—it is essentially inescapable, and it drives me up the wall. So, in honor of the season and to prove that I too can be a little festive, here are three fatuous holiday songs and how I make them work in my favor:
- “We Need a Little Christmas”
Worst line: “For I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older, and I need a little angel, sitting on my shoulder” (genius.com/Jerry-herman-we-need-a-little-christmas-lyrics).
How it works for me: Christmas may not be the best antidote for a person who is going through a tough time. When I notice I am colder and sadder than I would like to be, rather following the example set in this song, I remember all my best self-care strategies—exercise, rest, therapy, etc.—and put a few into action.
- “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
Worst line: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light. From now on our troubles will be out of sight… Through the years we all will be together, if the Fates allow” (carols.org.uk/have_yourself_a_merry_little_christmas.htm).
How it works for me: So, which is it? Are our troubles out of sight, or is it up to the inscrutable Fates? Neither of this ditty’s inconsistent worldviews are comforting or realistic. Instead, when I hear this tomfoolery, I remind myself that there are innumerable circumstances I cannot control, but I am strong enough to endure all of them.
- “Last Christmas”
Worst line: “Last Christmas I gave you my heart, but the very next day you gave it away. This year to save me from tears I’ll give it to someone special” (azlyrics.com/lyrics/wham/lastchristmas.html).
How it works for me: This is not a terrible sentiment—the singer seems to be experiencing some acute negative emotions, and they are doing their best to process them. However, they seem to be looking for a validating response from their ex who abruptly deserted them, which probably is not going to happen, and will most likely not result in their feeling better in any case. When I hear this, I remember that practicing self-compassion—while a difficult skill to master—is more effective and fulfilling in the long-term than relying on other people to bolster my self-worth.