Again and again over the last few weeks I have heard this refrain, “It’s Christmas, the holidays… and I’m so stressed! But I shouldn’t be!”
I have come to believe, over the years and with increasing intensity, that if we are feeling a feeling – any feeling – we aren’t just doing it for kicks. If we feel ourselves to be happy, we have reason for this. If sad, reason can be found for this too. And so it goes for stress. It follows that if you are feeling stressed, it’s because the situation that you find yourself in is stressful.
The trouble is that we have a tendency to believe some situations qualify as stressful, while others don’t. We preemptively determine where we expect to find our feelings. When they turn up unexpectedly, we decided them to be out of place.
And yet why shouldn’t the holidays be stressful? They tend to involve variables that would be deemed stressful at any other time of the year…
Spending, financial demands
Or inability to travel (pandemic!)
A drop in work due to the holidays and the accompanying change in finances, and routine
Or a surge in work pressure as people need things tying up before the New Year, or as a direct result of increased retail
Bottom line is, we don’t WANT them to be events that stress us because of what we believe that says about us and our families, or about our life situation. Our unexpected stress challenges our sense of identity and belonging. We believe that acknowledging stress around the holidays is to suggest we are somehow doing them WRONG. We aren’t organised enough, not close enough to our families, not handling our finances responsibly, or just that we are lacking in the requisite holiday cheer.
We also don’t want the holidays to be stressful because, somewhere along the way, we came to believe that things are either positive, or negative. Stress-less or Stress-ful. We got stuck in binary emotions. We enjoy the exchanging of gifts, but are feeling stress around managing costs. We enjoy the corny Christmas music but hate the pressure around figuring who to spend Christmas with this year.
And perhaps most obviously of all, we don’t want the holidays to be stressful because it makes us feel awful and we believe ourselves powerless to do anything about the feeling. Or perhaps we can see there might be solutions but the executing of them feels frankly just too overwhelming.
If only we could take the wrong/right assessment out of our feelings… If only we could simply notice them, without judgement or panic. We can be so aware of how we WANT to feel that we reject the feelings we actually notice ourselves having. They are unwanted and unwelcome and frequently get shoved in a corner.
What if we gave ourselves permission to actually listen to the stressed feelings as well as the ‘wonderful’ ones?
Those stressed out feelings are data. They are our ‘canaries in the mines’, singing out to warn of imminent danger. We ignore them to our peril.
Feeling stressed about spending on presents could be an invitation to check the budget and adjust expectations.
Feeling stressed about visiting/not visiting families could be an invitation to review our own needs over the holiday period, and how these can be best met.
Feeling stressed about decorating/planning could be an invitation to review and reassess your actual priorities and needs, as opposed to what your home SHOULD look like.
Feeling stressed about not seeing family as usual could be an invitation to offer extra comfort to yourself, planning ways to contact them in other ways or making your ‘different Christmas’ enjoyable in alternative ways.
Attending to our stress, letting it exist and, crucially, RESPONDING to it is the best way I know of allowing all of the Self to exist. Accepting and loving apparently contradictory experiences is a way towards internal peace and congruence.
After all, whatever your tradition around this time of year – precedent suggests the blending of wonderful with stress has always been expected. Yuletide celebrations look to the light and heat slowly returning, with full acknowledgement of the harshness of the cold and dark that has just been lived through. The Christmas Nativity story was hardly without stressors too, with a backdrop of Roman occupation, ‘no room at the inn’ and later, refugee status.
And for Third Culture Kids? Many of us grew up aware of our privilege. Sometimes we felt unprompted gratitude, and at other times this gratitude felt more… well… prompted. How many of us felt shame about feeling stress in situations the no one else seemed to find problematic? This can create a secret shame about not being ‘good enough’ that may echo for years and get triggered by all kinds of social situations. Our ability to assess how we SHOULD be responding in any given situation has been sometimes referred to as our ‘superpower‘. It can help us blend in, adapt, become useful contributors in many contexts. It can also be our kryptonite. That “should” can easily tip us into repression of our actual lived experience, and pile on shame.
In short, if this time of year is bringing with it some stress for you… that’s because it is, in fact, stressful. Not because you are doing it wrong.
And that stress? It might just pave your way towards a “wonderful time”. Let’s walk it together.