Expectations are always high at this time of year. It’s the season for joy, friendly people wishing each other cheer, generosity of spirit, and family gatherings. But just as often, it’s not for so many.
The stress and tension of buying gifts, satisfying expectant children, and anticipating family gatherings fraught with anxiety and judgement are also heightened at this time of year. Loneliness, grief, and loss feel heavier now than at any other time. Suicide statistics peak. And on top of all the usual stress, we are in our second holiday season marred by a world-wide pandemic with a new and possibly scarier variant at our doorstep. The unhappy and the sick feel more isolated, rejected, and angry at this time of year.
Now that I have fully depressed all of you, I do not mean to be a downer. What I want is to prod your compassion and empathy to understand that this season is just as hard for many as it can be joyful for others.
Can you allow a family member’s, even your child’s, sadness, depression, anger, without allowing it to spoiling your own happiness? Can you be the support that a loved one needs without worrying you must do something about it, feeling guilty and then backing away because you don’t know what to do? Are you free to feel how you want without fearing the judgment of others?
Many hate and resent this time of year—the commercialism, the lies and myths, the money spent, the decorating, the fake cheeriness. We come in all shapes and sizes of how we celebrate, what we believe, what brings us happiness, and what brings us down. The question is not can we simply tolerate the differences. Can we accept them? That does not mean agreeing, joining, or endorsing. Can I accept that people are different, that someone believes something that I don’t, that my child thinks it’s wrong that he doesn’t have a smartphone and I disagree? That I feel happy, and you feel despair? Or vice versa. And it’s okay. I don’t have to change anything.
True empathy means I get how you see the world from your vantage point, in your experience of the world with the feelings that come up for you—and I don’t judge that. It does not mean I agree with or share your point of view. It does not mean it is my job to fix things for you so that you see it differently. It really and truly means I understand. It’s not sympathy. Sympathy puts me in your experience with you. Empathy means I can stand in my experience and understand and support you in your experience.
Can you empathize—understand another’s point of view—without being brought down by it or thinking you must fix it? If you think you should but know you can’t fix it, that’s when you will walk away, avoid, or ignore the one who is hurting—because you feel incompetent. But all any of us really want is just to be heard, recognized, and validated—not fixed or changed.
Parents tend to take responsibility for their children’s feelings. Christmas is for children after all—isn’t it? We expect their excitement and smiling faces. But what about disappointed, sad, bereft children? Isn’t Christmas for them too? We all want our children to be happy but taking responsibility for that happiness puts you in a no-win situation. You are not responsible for their happiness—an impossible task. You are responsible for all your feelings, words, and behavior. But that is what you often want to blame on others.
I often get questions from parents complaining their child is “ruining it for everyone else” or “dragging everyone down by her mood. It’s not fair to the rest of us.” Have you ever felt depressed, lonely, angry? Of course you have. Do you feel that way to make others feel the same? I doubt it. Don’t put that power on your children—or anyone for that matter. You will only increase their unhappiness and add to their guilt when they learn that they are “making” everyone else feel bad.
Empathy, acceptance, support, consideration, and respect go a long way toward providing the unhappy person with what they need. A person at any age needs to feel normal and accepted no matter what they are experiencing. When we meet anger with anger, we send the message that your anger causes mine, and it’s not okay. Staying above it, yet empathic with the angry person means you are not being dragged down into the negative experience. And you are providing space for the anger of the other to dissipate on its own.
No one, but children especially, should ever feel forced to alter their feelings. Yes, they are often inconvenient and can take up a lot of space. But isolating, belittling, criticizing, and blaming adds fuel to the emotional fire. If it does put out the flames, it’s only temporary. Burning embers burst into flame at the next opportunity.
This holiday season see if you can feel free to feel however you do. If someone tries to talk you out of your mood or cheer you up or bring you down, simply ask to be accepted and understood. Try, “I’m not asking you to do anything about it. I just need to be here for as long as I need. I’m only asking you to understand.” Just let it be. This too will pass.