Ah, Christmas—such a jolly time of the year. For some, it’s a favorite holiday season. For others, it’s a time for increased anxiety, self-loathing, and potential substance abuse. For most, it’s time to get super stressed about presents, dieting, and how to avoid Aunt Rosa’s fruitcake in a reduction sauce. For folks in my line of work, it usually means a steady stream of new clients through March 1 of the next year.
What does Christmas actually mean anymore? I don’t care to go into the traditional Judeo-Christian aspects of it all; Christmas has taken on a new form in “modern times.” It’s become very, very commercial.
Capitalism has taken over a holiday season that was meant to spread joy.
Then there’s the whole aspect of family gatherings. Maybe you come from a two-family home and need to split your time. Or maybe you have a family member who has alcoholism or borderline personality disorder. The whole notion of spending time with them is as appealing as binge-watching every episode of “Jersey Shore.” One thing we could consider is our chosen family versus our family of origin. Sure, we have genetic connections to people but just as we have these connections, we also have different (and sometimes better) connections to others with whom we share no genetics. The latter is our chosen family. I, personally, prefer to spend the holidays with my chosen family, as the drama level significantly decreases.
The other stressful thing about the holidays is all the damn gift giving we obsess about. The worst part is, unlike birthdays, there’s more than one person you have to buy for. To add insult to injury, there is always one person on your list that has everything they need or they’re picky AF. Tips on how to not go psychotic for gift giving: First, ask folks for their wish lists. No thinking required, as it’s all there. Some wish lists also have the ability for folks to rate their “wish.” For example, my Amazon wish list is rated by desirability from highest to lowest (the ratings you’re your personal wish list on Amazon is highest, high, medium, low and lowest). I help my family and friends by totally take the thinking out of what to buy me by prioritizing the items on my wishlist. Don’t be ashamed of gift cards. I would much rather receive a gift card than a present I will constantly look at and wonder what kind of drugs you were doing at the time of purchase. Lastly, and my personal favorite: Make something. We all have our talents. I personally love handmade presents.
I would like to provide to you quick tips to get you through the holiday insanity and allow you to arrive in the new year with your psychological stability somewhat intact.
1) One of the major things I tackle with clients in therapy is their use of the word “should.” Famed psychologist Albert Ellis would always joke about “shoulding all over yourself.” We have internalized a certain way holidays should look and be like. Take a real close look at your shoulds regarding the holidays (and in life, generally). The reason you are getting all worked up may be your mental inflexibility on how the holiday season needs to look like. Shoulds do not allow you to choose. Ask yourself, “What would I like to do?” or “What do I choose to do?”
2) If your family holiday festivities feel like a bad telenovela episode, have a Plan B. In major cities, we have so many things we could be doing at the same time we are doing something else. If things go south quick: “Oh, hey, forgot I had this other function across town. Happy holidays. BYEEEEEEE.” Sometimes making a guest appearance is more important than being on for the full season.
3) With holidays (and in day-to-day life), having a list of quickie escapes/self-care plans is more powerful than Batman’s utility belt. Think of it as your personal utility belt. Sneak into the bathroom when the anxiety runs high and do some breathing. Think of some mantras or affirmations you can use to calm you down in a pinch. Prep some of your close friends by asking them to be ready for a quick 911 text as you’re about to throw a full bottle of wine at Uncle Erick. Think of what might work for you.
4) If you have no family of origin or chosen family, maybe do something different, like volunteer. There is an old 12-Step saying which goes something like this, “Want to get high? Do something for someone else.” Any time we actively choose to do something from someone else, we get out of our own heads and stop playing the victim. There is no shortage of volunteer activities during the holidays.
Holidays can be stressful, yet you can take charge of the insanity by easily changing your perspective on things. Be prepared if you get stressed and/or sad. This is completely normal to experience and you know you have tools that will get you sane in a pinch. Be creative amidst the hustle and bustle. You will see how much easier you can make the holidays for yourself.
Dr. Tony Ortega is a first generation Cuban American. He is a licensed clinical psychologist, life coach, and author who has been in practice since 1992, currently serving the LGBTQ population in his private practice located in Brooklyn, New York.