This originally appeared on January 1 (2021) in my free quarterly e-book for Patrons and email subscribers. It's called "Stuck Not Broken: Quarterly." Subscribe at the bottom of the page or become a Patron for $5 a month.
On Christmas Eve I published a short episode for my Patrons in an attempt to bring them a more well-rounded holiday message that was actually pertinent to them. In particular, to those that are not going to have the perfect holiday experience. What that is is obviously up for debate, but I’m referring to these pieces that might be a part of it:
Joy and other highly ventral feelings
Obviously the holiday season is over, so this is less of a message of preparation as it is of a sort of post-mortem processing first. And then maybe some preparation and reframing for the coming holidays. But I hope you’ll indulge me in sharing a bit about my holiday experience(s).
My wife and I and our two kiddos are almost nauseatingly festive. Yes, we’re one of those families that celebrates Christmas with lots of commercialism and materialism. Lots and lots of lights and ornaments. We’ve got a stocking up for each of us above the fireplace on our mantle. (Mine says “Justin” and is a hand-knit stocking that I got when I was born, an Aunt made it for me.) We’ve got multiple Christmas jammies and even a set that matches. We have completely bought into the Hallmark and Coke bottle version of Christmas. No caroling, but nauseating enough. It’s truly sickening, I admit it. Please don’t despise me!
But it’s also a season for us to do some different family things together, like driving around and looking at lights. We make cookies as a family with frosting and sprinkles. My wife and I wrap gifts on Christmas Eve, I write a note from Santa and take a bite of the cookies the kids leave out for Santa. We also watch “Elf” repeatedly and whatever other Christmas movies we can (“Jingle Jangle” on Netflix is pretty cool, though too much singing for us. “Klaus” on Netflix is incredible and has been on two years in a row now. “Wolfwalkers” on Apple+ isn’t a Christmas movie, but it’s amazing).
I guess I tell you all of this to just share a bit of what we do and where I’m coming from. It really is shockingly wholesome. The teen Justin is in shock at least.
But it wasn’t always this way.
We had plenty of holidays together where things were definitely not so perfect looking. We’ve had our share of disagreements over visiting relatives and spending money. My wife and I are both nearly 40 and have been hammering away at our careers for a couple of decades now. We’ve worked and worked and gotten to where we are. We’ve recently been able to create the holiday experience that we want to have within our own little family.
There was one Christmas where we wanted to upgrade. We had gotten a cheap fake tree the year before which was a little bigger than the hand-me-down we already had. We went onto Craigslist and searched for people giving away ornaments. We found someone who was unloading his ornaments for maybe $50. It was a lot and we thought we were getting a steal. Our tree was going to look a bit classier than it had, since all we had were a random assortment of ornaments that had been given to us.
The guy we bought them from lived in a nice neighborhood and I remember my wife and I saying that someday we would live in a neighborhood like that. In a large house for our family (our daughter was maybe 4 at the time). We lived in an apartment in the Bay Area. We used to move at least once a year for various reasons. I’m not exaggerating; we would move at least once a year for maybe 10 years. Seeing his home and buying the “fancy ornaments” meant something to us and was a glimmer of a life we were striving for that always seemed far away.
But I remember this craigslist guy was eager to sell and seemed like he just wanted to dump everything he had in his garage, including the ornaments. Like, I just sort of felt this urgency to it. Or an uncaring. Or a disdain even. I don’t know, but it was something.
We got out that cheap smallish tree, strung up the lights (always do that before the ornaments!) and began to go through and put up the ornaments we had just bought. There were really cool glass ones and shiny ones. We were seriously in marvel that our tree was going to look decidedly more fancy. We felt more adult. More accomplished or independent.
I noticed on one ornament in particular that it seemed hand made. I checked the back of it and saw a child’s name. I sort of froze and showed it to my wife. We looked through a few more and saw that there were more. Like they would say “Kyle’s first Christmas” or “from: Jack to: mom.” They belonged to a family. They were a part of a family’s holiday. And now they were hurriedly sold to strangers through craigslist.
We assumed the parents got a divorce and the man was simply selling everything off. We have no idea the reality of the situation, but that’s what we came up with. It could be any number of things.
We thought of the man that sold them to us. It must have been a lonely holiday for him. And for the wife we’re assuming he was no longer with. And for the kids too. Who knows? Maybe it was a good thing and the kids had their first safe Christmas with relatives. It’s irrelevant to my point here. And to the reframe we gave ourselves.
Having the “fancy” Christmas meant something to us back then. And it still does. We wanted the Christmas that we currently have. We achieved that goal. But having each other is a helluva lot more important. Having both of our kids, being a close family, actually enjoying spending time together. I think in that moment my wife and I both appreciated what we had and we now appreciate what we currently have.
But we also know that it could easily be lost. Fast. Any number of things could go wrong and the nauseating holidays we’ve cultivated would be wiped out. So that’s my reframe for my own holidays. We love it. It’s great. We can now afford the Christmas we always wanted. But it could easily be gone. My reframe is one of deeper appreciation for who I have in my life. For my amazing wife and incredible kids. And simply knowing that what we have is potentially very temporary.
Believe me, I know that not everyone is going to have a holiday season like I do. The “perfect” kind of holiday. I know full well. I work with kids and families who are simply not going to have those holidays. I’ve been doing so for over a decade. The kids and teens I work with are not going to get much of anything, if at all. It’s simply not a special time for them. Poverty, abuse, violent neighborhoods and a life on welfare are many of their norms.
It’s actually the opposite of special. There’s some shame for them during the holidays. The shame of having less than or not at all. There’s embarrassment. There’s jealousy and resentment. A lot of the feelings that I had growing up around people that had a lot more than we did.
I work with adults that didn’t have special holidays and dread this time of year. It’s simply not a special time for them. It’s lonely. It’s imperfect. It’s a reminder of what they do not have or have not achieved. And maybe you can relate to that.
That’s where your own personal reframe is going to be important. Think back to the holidays that just passed. Whatever holiday(s) you do or do not celebrate. Take a minute and reflect on what they were like for you. Here are some potential journal/thought prompts:
What feelings did you have?
What did those days mean to you?
Now let’s try this from a different angle:
How did you want things to be?
What do you wish were different?
What feelings would you like to have?
Validate and normalize first
I think it’s important to differentiate between what it was and what you would like it to be. First, I don’t think it’s helpful to gloss over or ignore what you are actually feeling. Maybe as a temporary relief that’s helpful. And that might have helped you to get through the holidays. But now that they’re over, you might be able to reflect on what you were actually feeling. And to give those feelings some validation and normalization.
Whatever feelings you had are probably understandable based on what life you live and lived. Like, if I or anyone else had your life, we would probably feel the same way. If your life circumstance were re-lived by someone else, they’d probably end up in a similar circumstance today. I guess what I’m saying here is that whatever you’re feeling is probably a normal and expected outcome of how you were raised and other life circumstances.
I’m not saying you should stay in these circumstances and these feelings. And this isn’t an issue of blame. It’s simply a possible avenue of normalization and validation. If I were to tell you that I lived a life of parental rejection or humiliation around the holidays and then felt those feelings around this most recent holiday, you would probably validate my feelings, right? You’re not exactly okay with the feelings. You’re not happy with them. You’re not trying to take them from me and make me feel better. You’re just saying, “Yeah, that makes sense. I can see why you would feel this way.” You might say, “Geez, of course you feel this way!”
And that’s what I want you to do for yourself. Validate and normalize.
Recognize what you want second
Now return to the second set of questions that I gave you. This is a representation of what you want. This probably does not match up with the first set of questions. So rather than being stuck in the energy of the first set and wishing for the second set, let’s differentiate. Again, normalize and validate the first step. It is what it is.
Take a deep breath.
Recognize what you want. Allow yourself to imagine and feel what you want as something separate and distinct from the first set of feelings. Over time, the present day feelings might alleviate and give way to the future ones that you want. There will be more of a transition, one leading to the next. But for now, let’s separate them and see if we can hold two things as true at once.
Because the feelings from the first set are true. And the wants from the second set are true as well. Both of these things are true at the same time. The second set represents a possible version of what life could be like for you maybe next holiday season. It can happen. Or at least some steps can be made in that direction. But it’s not happening now. Not yet.
The ability to hold these both true at the same time and sit with them might help to decrease the intensity of the first set. It’s okay to pendulate back and forth between these two sets of feelings and let them intermingle as well. Journaling or meditation can be helpful in this.
So this holiday is over and the next one is not here yet. You probably have some feelings left from this holiday but maybe not as intensely. You have some image in your mind of what you would like things to be like for the future, but it’s not fully developed. You’re in some sort of gray area. This is a really good opportunity to create a reframe, which could potentially act as a bridge from the past to the future.
And maybe it doesn’t lead directly to the future image. It doesn’t need to. What it needs to do is to alleviate some of the suffering that you felt this year and not carry it to the next. It’s taking the reality of your situation and building from there, toward what you would like. When you can hold both of these at the same time (or fluctuate between them), the intensity of the split might simmer and then a clearer mind will begin to think in the middle. This is where a reframe can begin to happen. This is an opportunity to define what the holidays mean to you moving forward.
It seems to me that part of the suffering you might feel is due to a disparity in what is expected of the holidays and what the reality of them are. Like the kids that I work with. Their day to day functioning is already pretty crummy. So they already have suffering. But when you pile on the expectations of the holiday season, it sort of compounds the suffering. If this is supposed to be a time of family togetherness, then the fact that they are already not in a healthy family dynamic is made worse. The problem is already there, but now they’re surrounded by unrealistic expectations on a larger level.
Consider these journal or thought prompts for yourself:
What expectations do you have imposed upon you from others?
Who is imposing these expectations?
What societal expectations are imposed?
What cultural expectations are imposed?
What familial or spousal expectations are imposed?
And another set for further journaling or reflecting:
What expectations do you buy into willingly?
What expectations do you buy into out of pressure?
What expectations do you and your spouse agree on?
What expectations do you and your spouse disagree on?
I hope that you can see that there are of course expectations of all kinds imposed onto us around the holidays. Some of these you might more or less buy into voluntarily. My wife and I know that the holidays aren’t really about the commercial aspects of them, but it’s something that we choose to be a part of. Our in-laws might have their own expectations of what’s going to happen during the holidays, but we may or may not choose to go along with that.
You may have more choice than you realize. If you can step back for a moment, notice the expectations put on you and then notice the feeling associated with it, that might be enough to begin to choose differently. Especially if you can first be more grounded in your own values. For our family, we come first. That’s our value. We prioritize our marriage and our children above all else. From that value, we then decide on what to do with holidays, who we see and where we go.
All of this could act as a reframe for you. That you and your immediate spouse or immediate family are the priority. That this is first and foremost a season for those closest to you.
All the other people in your life are allowed to have their wants and their expectations. You’re not taking that away from them. But you’re also allowed to have your own wants and expectations. And if someone expects something out of you, they don’t necessarily get it. They just don’t. That’s a choice that you make.
Yes, it’s uncomfortable. And yes, the other person or people won’t like it. But that might be necessary for you to prioritize yourself and make the change that you want for yourself and those you’re going to prioritize. They’re allowed to be upset.
Reframe. Or not.
You get to frame and define what the holidays mean to you. If you want to. You don’t have to do anything differently. You don’t have to reframe anything and just keep going with the way things are. That is completely within the options here.
And what they end up meaning to you can look way way different than what is expected of you. Maybe it’s just another day and you pay as little attention to it as you can. Everyone else is wasting their money and stressing over another sunrise and sunset. You don’t have to do that. Maybe it’s a day for you to disconnect entirely and dedicate to reading and writing and creating.
Maybe the family you spend the day with is actually friends. Your family you grew up with doesn’t necessarily feel like family. These are individuals that you might not want in your life at all. So the people you spend the holiday with might be those that have earned some trust from you. Whoever they are.
The gift-giving of the holiday season might be something that you re-interpret. Instead of materialistic gifts, you might make this an occasion to give your special people a specific heart-felt compliment. Or write them a short story just for them. Or just give thanks. Your giving doesn’t need to match anyone else’s giving. It doesn’t have to look or feel the same at all. But if you just stick to the pressure and stress of the expectation, you won’t get to discover your interpretation of the expectation.
Instead of giving gifts, you might give experiences. This is something I have seen other parents do and something we did a bit of in our house. Instead of a bunch of toys, we got a few toys and a family trip the past couple of years (not in 2020 though, sadly).
You get to reframe
Just some of my own thoughts for you. I don’t know of a correct reframe for you and your specific life. That’s up for you to discover. Now that the holidays are over, it’s a good opportunity to reflect back, reframe and move forward. You don’t need anyone else’s permission for this. It’s just for you and maybe your spouse or some select people.
Besides all of this, I do hope you enjoyed your holiday season. I hope you got what you wanted in every way possible. I hope the season was special for you in the way that you needed it to be.