Every so often you get those times when a certain phrase plays over and over in your head. For me at the moment it’s about comparing my ‘insides’ to other’s ‘outsides’.
It’s a well-known phrase in 12-step recovery groups, referring to the fact that, often in life (and particularly in the social media-dominated world we now live in) people present a glossy, heavily manicured version of who they actually are and what their life is actually like. Our big mistake is to buy into the idea that these representations are real, to compare them with how we ourselves feel inside and find ourselves lacking.
The challenge of Christmas
Christmas is a particularly dangerous time for this. It’s that time of year when advertisers ramp up the schmaltz with idyllic looking scenes and happy families surrounded by delicious food and alcohol. The problem with all of this is it stirs up feelings of inadequacy for so many who feel that their lives don’t fit into the image portrayed. It can also be an incredibly triggering time for those struggling with addictions or dependence on food and alcohol.
The focus on children and family also brings up painful feelings for many. Some are going through a relationship breakdown or marking a first Christmas without their kids with them. Others are struggling to have children and Christmas is a painful reminder that it hasn’t happened for them (yet).
I often see people in the run up to Christmas struggling with the enforced jollity of it all and the stereotypes of what Christmas ‘should’ look like. It’s no wonder when we’re fed the idea that families should be together, having a wonderful time, we should enjoy masses of food and alcohol and we should all be happy spending lots of money on expensive presents for each other.
That’s a whole lot of shoulds.
And it excludes those who, for example, choose not to spend Christmas with particular members of their family as a healthy act of self-preservation. Or those who have to be very careful around their food intake or who don’t drink alcohol.
Advent and reflection
The price we pay for being overly focused on the shiny happy side of life is that those who aren’t feeling so shiny are left feeling lonely and ‘different’. I think it’s a dangerous thing to try to airbrush unhappiness and pain out of existence, even at Christmas.
Coming at the end of the year, Christmas is inevitably a time of reflection on the previous 12 months, which includes thinking about pain and loss. Traditionally, Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas in the Christian calendar), was a period of waiting, preparation, silence and also mourning. That space for reflection on the darker side of life, providing an important contrast to the sparkly excess of Christmas, has been lost for many. But we really need it, particularly at this time of year. Our depleted bodies and minds will thank us for it.
If, on the other hand, we seek to deny that pain exists or try to brush it under the carpet because it’s Christmas and we ‘should’ all be happy, the pain only digs its claws in even more
What clients often tell me is that, when they’re going through difficult times, what they really need is for others to acknowledge their pain and give them the space to feel it without trying to fix it. As M. Scott Peck famously said: “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.”
So, if you are spending Christmas this year with someone who is struggling, probably the greatest gift you could give is to simply be there and listen.
Coping at Christmas
So, how do we find this space for reflection that we so need? Some tried and tested methods include:
- Decide in advance how many events a week you can handle over Christmas and stick to that limit (even if you feel guilty). It’s OK to say no.
- Similarly, don’t feel guilty about leaving any party when you need to. Plan your reasons for leaving, escape routes (i.e. transport home) in advance.
- If you are at a party when you’re feeling rubbish but you can’t leave for whatever reason, try to find a person who looks less comfortable than you and speak to them. By focusing on someone else, it takes the heat off yourself and you might start to feel less awkward as a result.
- Have at least one day or even half a day which is about what you want to do, be it a lone walk, a run, a pub lunch, a trip to the cinema.
- Keep regular ‘anchors’ in your week that help to keep you feeling good – a bit of routine keeps us grounded at Christmas. ‘Anchors’ can be exercise, recovery meetings, specific time set aside for reading and self-reflection, baths etc. Whatever makes you feel good.
And whatever you do, remember this. Most people (however shiny and happy they look) are probably having just as mixed a time as you are. So don’t believe the ‘outsides’.