The festive season can often bring much merriment and cheer, but we know and understand that for many, it can also be a very difficult time of the year.
Many of you may relate to thoughts such as:
- Christmas makes me feel so empty. It brings it home to me everything I don’t have.
- I can’t cope with my family over Christmas, they are so difficult and inconsiderate, we always end up having arguments. I just don’t have a good time.
- I’ve got so many problems and so much to deal with, how can I get happy about Christmas.
- I feel so lonely at Christmas, everyone else seems to have what I want, how can I feel happy and complete when so much is missing.
- There are so many demands on my time over Christmas, I can’t please everyone and people make me feel so guilty if I can’t spend time with them.
- Christmas just reminds me that another year has passed and I’m still stuck in the same old rut and nothing has changed yet again, I wish Christmas was over so I don’t have to deal with all these feelings.
All of these are quite common thoughts and feelings to have around the festive season, but the good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way. We pick up and develop this kind of thinking throughout our lives unconsciously, but it is possible to change our thinking and how we feel over the Christmas period. It is possible to take back control of how you feel, and have an experience of Christmas that is filled with ease and joy, or at the very least, much less stress and turmoil.
So, here is our 4 step AA rescue plan for beating the festive blues, and shifting your experience of the festive season
You’ve herd the phase “there is always something to feel grateful for”, right? But in all honestly, when you feel low, it can just sound like some cheesy throw-away line, and you don’t really believe that finding things to be grateful for will make any difference at all. But we’re not simply saying ‘think of the many other people in the world who have it a whole lot worse than you, and be grateful for what you have’. Everyone has their own struggles and challenges, and just because others may be apparently ‘worse’, that doesn’t make your feelings invalid.
However, if you really focus on finding things in your life you can appreciate, things that are relevant and personal to you, the climate of thoughts and feelings that you create in your life will begin to change, and you will feel the effects of this. What you will actually experience on a day to day basis, is less of the negative thoughts that you don’t enjoy, and more of the happier more enjoyable thoughts and feelings that you do want. It is as simple and logical as that. Spending time appreciating the things you have to feel grateful for, actually shifts your experience of life. There may well still be some big issues you want to address in your life, but at least you have done something about making a start to shift your mindset and how you feel on a daily basis, and when you are coming from a place of acknowledging what is good, you will naturally start to feel, create and attract more of that. You are also much more likely to be effective in addressing the issues you want to overcome if you are not stuck in focusing on your negative thoughts which are by their nature, not going to help you in changing the situation you want to change.
So, give yourself the gift of savouring any small moment or thing that you can find to feel appreciation for over the festive season. Maybe it’s the beauty of nature on a crisp winters day, or savouring some time to relax on cosy days or nights in. It could be something as small as enjoying a few kind words and a smile exchanged with a shop assistant amidst all the Christmas rush. Whatever it is, simply spending a few moments appreciating the feelings of joy, pleasure, love, or whatever the feeling is that arises in you when you experience this thing, and enjoy it. When you shift your thinking from what is lacking, to the abundance of things to be grateful for that are there, your whole experience shifts. It doesn’t have to be a big exercise, just try to do this little and often, or when you catch yourself thinking negatively. Gradually you will notice that you are feeling happier more and more often.
We all have our images and expectations around what would be the perfect Christmas. The perfect family meal, the perfect thoughtful gift from a partner, appreciative helpful children, considerate relatives that are a pleasure to be around, chatting and laughing around a log fire, playing games and having fun together with no tension or arguments. But very often our experience doesn’t live up to our expectations, and we find ourselves spending much of the time frustrated and wishing things were different. How would it be if you were to drop all these expectations you have around the festive season? That might sound difficult, or even unreasonable to do. The fairy tale images are everywhere! And Surely its ok to want to have a loving family and a happy Christmas and all that comes with that? Of course it is, but the truth is, all the time you spend wishing things were different, you are closing yourself from the possibility of experiencing more of what it is you want, and missing out on the golden moments that are there available for you to enjoy.
With this in mind, try noticing the moments you drift into wishing things were different, and try for a moment to let the expectations go and see what opening arises. The situation might not be the perfect image in your mind, but simply the act of dropping the expectations releases the futility and frustration and allows an opening for you to experience something different.
This could be as simple as letting go of the expectation to have a perfectly tidy house, and not worrying about the wrapping paper all over the floor, so that you can actually enjoy your children opening their presents. Or dropping the expectation for everyone to play the board game you want to play, and instead enjoying a family film together.
This doesn’t mean you have to accept situations that are really uncomfortable or unpleasant for you, and despite all your best intentions, and efforts to change your thoughts and expectations, there will inevitably be things that happen that challenge your festive glow.
Your mother-in-law sulks if you don’t invite her round for Christmas dinner, your father in law drinks too much and starts insulting people at the dinner table, your wife doesn’t seem to appreciate the thoughtful gift you got her, and instead she seems stressed and snappy with you, or you feel like no one helps with anything all day and you feel completely invisible. All the kinds of things that do not make for a very calm and cool Yule. But joking aside, the things that may seem small in the grand scheme of things normally, can actually cause a lot of tension, and even conflict and division between family members at this time of year.
In these situations it is important to not waste your energy in resistance and frustration, if only for the sake of your own sanity.
What that means is, not responding with sarcasm, reacting in haste or anger to someone else’s comment, not jumping in to criticise someone else’s behaviour. Instead take a step back, and sprinkle in a little acceptance to these situations. What this does is allow you to create a space before you react, and before you end up feeling stressed, angered or upset.
With that, what acceptance also brings, is the essence of equal dignity. If we bring equal dignity into the situation, this means that we understand that everyone has an equal right to their own wants and needs, within reason. We may not like it, we may not agree, but we can choose not to let other people or situations negatively impact how we feel. So if your mother in law is sulking for not being invited for Christmas dinner, recognise that is her choice to sulk, just as it is yours not to invite her. She is may unfortunately cause herself negative feelings and stress over it, but you don’t need to let that affect you. If you can come to this acceptance, quite often the heat in a situation is diffused and you are much more able to either not let situations or people impact how you feel, or to act in a way that is more useful in resolving the situation.
3. Acts of kindness
It really is true that you get back what you give, and more so. Through the act of giving, the gifts you receive are just as great as that which you gave.
Have you ever reflected on those small moments of mutual recognition and connection that happen when a small random act of kindness occurs? Like the grateful glance you exchange when you help pick up the contents of a fellow frazzled shoppers bag as they drop it all over the floor, they are grateful someone cared and took the time to help them, and you feel equally happy to have been able to lighten someone else’s load, and for the appreciation they showed.
There are countless moments in any day when it is possible to perform small acts of kindness, not only contributing to brightening someone else’s day, but also in turn contributing to your experience of feeling more connection and more joy.
Could you shovel your elderly neighbours footpath or take them a mince pie, show some empathy and appreciation to a busy postal worker, add some items to the local foodbank collection, or simply say how much you appreciate something someone has done for you? Try performing at least 5 small acts of kindness a day and notice the difference it makes to the amount of positive feelings you experience, it’s the Christmas gift that keeps on giving, and it doesn’t have to cost a thing.
If you are doing the 3 things we have already discussed, you are already probably well on your way to diffusing your negative feelings around the festive season, and feelings of blame and resentment are probably much less a feature of your experience. And you are also already doing this next stage, which is taking personal responsibility and taking action.
Just as you have been choosing to take some steps to change your thoughts and experience of the festive period, it is also important to remember that it is your choice, and your personal responsibility to take action if there a something you would like to change.
Remembering that how you think feel and act is your personal responsibility alone, means that you take back your own power to change things, rather than giving that power away and feeling like the victim of someone else’s behaviour or some outside circumstance.
This means taking responsibility for doing what it is that you want to do, or asking for what it is that you need. It could be saying no to an invite over Christmas, when you previously might have said yes even though you didn’t want to accept. Or it could mean asking for some help with the dinner, rather than simply expecting it to happen. It may be that the person or situation still doesn’t change, but even then, you always have a choice about how you think, feel, and react. So you may choose not to spend time with certain people over the festive period, or to take a walk when you feel you need to take a break from people. Remembering you have this choice means that you are able to avoid getting caught up in blame, judgement, criticism and other negative thinking, and drop any of that attachment and expectation on others, which allows you to enjoy moving through the festive period with much more ease.
All of these practices are things that we recommend to do daily, and even more so at this time of year, they will serve you well as you navigate through what can be a tricky time.
Here a previous participant share’s about their experience of Christmas after applying these techniques:
“Before I went to Penninghame, I used to dread Christmas, and all the feelings of loneliness, lack, disappointment, and inadequacy that it would bring up. It was like heading into a depression that I knew was coming every single year. I would literally cry most days for about a month before, and have to excuse myself throughout family occasions at Christmas because I would get so overwhelmed by these feelings, and I couldn’t seem to do anything to change any of this. In fact I only succeeded in making it worse for myself. I was not a pleasure to be around at that time of year. In fact I made it so much worse for myself. I would be snappy, and just want to get away from people. I would ultimately be hiding myself away and making having the happy times I wanted to have, even less of a possibility.
But the tools I have learned from Penninghame have completely shifted my experience of Christmas. It took me a little while to apply them consistently, so there were still a few secret tears shed over the first Christmas I had after Penninghame, although it was still a lot better than before. It felt a little like my old ways of thinking clung on a bit, and since I only got to apply my newly learned techniques once a year at Christmas, my old thoughts about Christmas seemed to think they could sneak back up on me. But after year 2, they could really see I meant it, and they were no longer needed, and since then my experience of Christmas has been full of much more peace and calm, and all the wonderful feelings I was always missing. ”
Wishing you a Christmas of joy and connection
With love, the Penninghame Team