If you polled the people in my innermost circles about whether I lean more heavily toward optimism or pessimism, I would venture to guess that they’d overwhelmingly label me as a positive person. I’m a hugger, I’m a Pisces, I call all my dear ones “My Love”… so you might be inclined to assume that I’m also the type of person to put my Christmas decorations up before Thanksgiving and host cookie exchanges.
I hate to disappoint, but I’m not.
Nearly imperceptibly, a feeling of dread and resistance begin to creep into my emotional body just before Halloween, and it seems to crescendo until New Year’s Eve, when this huge release – like gasping for air after nearly drowning – comes to gently reattach my feet to the ground. The pattern is as predictable as it is traumatic and exhausting. And yet, each year I’m finding myself more at ease, more in loving relationship to it, than the year before. And I have my yoga and mindfulness practice (and my wonderful teachers!) to thank for that.
Tending to Our Wounds
Like many of us, I have a both/and catalog of memories when it comes to the holidays. Early life memories include both special traditions, cutting down our own tree, giant extended family gatherings, and laughter and also arguments, challenging custody arrangements, toxic family patterns, and too much alcohol. And now as the parent, I’ve had both precious memories with my own children, husband, and our extended families and regret for missed experiences due to my old retail work schedule and grief from losing 3 of my 4 grandparents during the holidays and within a 4 year span of each other.
I remember working in a café at the mall and seeing the wide range of emotions in the eyes, words, and body language of my customers; I could sense everything from joy and enthusiasm to utter heartbrokenness, as well as the shame, resentment, and grief that this time of year can cause or retrigger.
Like many of us, I have a both/and catalog of memories when it comes to the holidays.
The marketing makes it seem like we should be in a state of total bliss, gratitude, and generosity from November 1st to January 1st, but I can’t even make it an entire day without feeling at least 15 different emotions, and not all of them are virtuous. All year long, folks are dealing with financial struggles, divorce, long-term illness, unexpected death, job loss, abuse, addiction… and yet we’ve accepted this false belief that we are mandated to buy gifts for every. single. person. from our families and friends to our coworkers, our baristas, our grocery clerks, our babysitters, and our neighbors during this 60-day period, regardless of how we interact with them the rest of the year – kinda sounds ridiculous when you put it that way, right?
Mindfulness Provides Wider Perspective
That’s my point. It is ridiculous. And the burden of unobserved emotions brings along feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. It is my commitment to my practices that helps me create space between the world and my experience of it – so I can have a little more choice in how I respond. For example:
- When I’m offered another party invitation, and I can sit and inquire within myself whether I have the time, space, and energy to offer myself fully to that engagement; and if I don’t, I graciously decline.
- When I get my groceries and I’m bombarded with bright, alluring gift displays, and I feel my heart contract and a lump form in my throat because I know I can’t afford it, I place my hand on my heart, take a deep breath, and remember that material displays of affection can be nice, but they are not required to show what someone means to me.
- When I think about who is or is not at the dinner table, and it makes me want to pour a glass of spiked eggnog, I can silently repeat a few loving-kindness phrases until the desire to run away or numb out passes.
We Heal What We Observe
We can’t help it when something triggers a trauma response – those things happen well before our cognitive minds can catch up. But we can learn how to identify and be with our painful thoughts and emotions in a more tender and understanding way. And then we can learn new strategies for coping with difficult experiences, such as breathing techniques, a quick stretch or walk, a silent or spoken prayer, or something else. It’s up to each of us to find that “something else” that works best for us. And we all will, eventually – it all starts by saying “Yes.”
“When you are willing to feel it, you can heal it.” – Unknown