When you walk into shops the next few weeks and see the newly-laid out Christmas section, do you feel excitement or dread? A little of both?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, for Counsellors and Psychologists this is the busiest part of our year. Christmas and New Year, for multiple reasons, are times of stress, anxiety, frustration, sadness for many people. At this time of year we often hear stories of the loneliness suffered by people who feel the absence of friends and family particularly keenly when they see others surrounded by loved ones.
Less talked about is how difficult it can be for people surrounded by those complex networks of family and friends for prearranged get-togethers. Against a backdrop of idealised families everywhere from holiday movies to Christmas advertisements, our real life family dynamic, with its mixture of conflicts and stressors, may feel particularly hard to resolve. The reality is that every family has its issues and that this is often the time of year any unaddressed conflicts will surface. Our high expectations for quality interactions are partly to blame as is enforced proximity, lubricated by food and wine.
If you are one of those people who returns to your family home for Christmas dinner, you may well have experienced the strange and powerful force that going back to a parent’s house can exercise. Perhaps it is inevitable that roles played as a child will emerge and that, even if you are an independent adult every other day, with a family of your own perhaps, it’s hard to guard against those childhood habits of filial resentment or sibling rivalry. And if you are part of a blended family, further complications may surface.
In fact, whatever relationship 'stuckness' you face in your family interactions, whether with immediate family member or the cousin not seen since this time last year, if you haven’t actively made the effort to address it, don’t expect it to have miraculously changed in the meantime. It’s still there waiting for you. This year, rather than hoping for the best and being ambushed by disappointment, maybe it’s time to have that hard conversation and try to unlock whatever it is that has kept your relationship stuck.
New Year is also a time plagued by the gap between expectation and reality. In common with the rest of the holiday season, there are the elements of a prescribed gathering, a celebration that occurs whether or not you’re in the mood, and the risk that anything less than a wonderful event will feel like a failure. Just as emotionally complex is the New Year focus on starting afresh, addressing bad habits and starting new ones to lead to the hoped-for better life. The truth is that we know a lot of New Year resolutions never come to fruition but have you ever considered why? Is it just that most people lack the willpower to build the life they want?
In truth, the reason resolutions so frequently fail is that change is a process, not an event. Although events may be a trigger in the process or a source of motivation, the fact is that change will not, cannot last for any sustained period unless we address the underlying issues. Perhaps the New Year’s resolution is to stop overeating. If this overeating is stemming from a need for comfort, the resolution can’t take hold unless this need can be found elsewhere. Simply deciding to eat less is not enough. Building lasting change would involve figuring out what obstacles are standing in the way of seeking comfort, nurture in a healthier and less knee-jerk fashion.
Because this takes time and sustained effort, timing is everything. To build and maintain change you need to be ready, equipped with the mental and emotional resources to focus, with the right support around you. If you are wiped out from the rigours of the holiday season it may be the worst possible moment to start an arduous journey. My point here is that to change you need to be ready. If you’re ready now, don’t wait for New Year and if you’re not ready at New Year don’t start just because it’s Jan 1.
At any time of year, we should be trying to make change before a situation becomes intolerable, whether this relates to work, spousal or family relationships, even your relationship with yourself. In my many years’ experience as a Family Counsellor this is no more likely to coincide with New Year than any other arbitrary date.
Now, before the holidays suck you into a whirlpool of work parties and family events, really look at what do you want to be different and start making a practical plan. Do you know what has been stopping you from taking a step towards change and the life you want for you? If you don’t have an answer for that maybe it’s time to talk to a Counsellor or Psychologist. That way you’ll be fully equipped for change towards happier, healthier tomorrows and not just another Christmas or a New Year.
We wish you and your family a Merry Christmas & Happy New Year! Be kind to yourself and others.