The 8 Reasons We Should Wish Each Other Crappy Holidays

Happy holidays! Joy to the world! Peace on earth! Happy Hannukah! Merry Christmas! This time of year, season’s greetings ring out everywhere. But as a therapist, they can ring a little hollow, because this is also the time of year when my phone starts ringing…

Merry Christmas

Photo Credit: nicola.albertini via Compfight cc

In the midst of a season advertised as joyful, a therapist knows the truth: suffering doesn’t go on hiatus for a season. In fact, it is often intensified by the season. But a therapist also knows:

We get to our happiness by admitting our crappiness.

Revealing is the beginning of redeeming.

Confession is the birthplace of connection.

What if, this holiday season, instead of trying to be extraordinary, we let ourselves admit, reveal, and confess the ordinary struggles of our human lives? This is easier said than done, because when we’ve been told our whole lives we should be a certain way, we sometimes need permission to be a new way. So, from a therapist’s office, here’s some eight-fold permission to be more fully human this holiday season:

1. Emotions come and go. No one feels joyful for four consecutive weeks. But, this time of year, we beat ourselves up for not having fun all the time. Emotions are like a roller coaster. If we try to attach ourselves to one, we will be sorely disappointed. You have permission to feel like a roller coaster, to experience the many lows, and to be surprised by the moments of joy.

2. We feel like kids again. And not in a good way. Someone once said, “If you think you’ve moved beyond your childhood wounds, just go back home for a couple of days.” At the holidays, we return to family and, despite our best efforts, we often feel like we’re back at square one. We’re not. We’re simply learning again about the work of forgiveness. It isn’t a single event. It has to happen over and over again. You have permission to be a work in progress, to forgive yet again, and to feel a little more free to move one.

3. Mile markers. Rituals and traditions knit us together from season to season, but they also provide a distinctive landmark at which to ask, “What was life like last year at this time?” And the truth is, since last year, most of us have lost something dear to us. Someone we love. Our health. A job. A house. A faith. The holidays are an occasion for celebration and grief. That’s okay. Celebrations often end in hangovers, but grief ends in acceptance and an abiding sense of peace. You have permission to grieve, to feel the loss, and to feel your way, eventually, to an enduring peace.

4. Black Friday. Giving and gifting is a beautiful thing, but this is the month we’ll all go into more debt trying to do something good, and debt enslaves us and weighs us down. So why do we do it? Because we’re afraid of disappointing anyone. What if, this year, we gave ourselves to the people who want our presence, not our presents? What if we stayed in the black and took our freedom back. You have permission to be frugal this season, to be a presence instead of a present, and to enjoy those things which are totally free.

5. Speaking of gifts. By the time the tenth catalogue arrives in the mail, our kids seem freaked out and entitled, and we start to wonder if we’re doing something wrong as parents. But the only thing we’ve done is forgotten. We’re big kids now, with jobs and paychecks, and if we want something, we can usually find a way to get it. Kids have to wait. You have permission to let your kids be kid, permission to be an adult who has forgotten what it was like, to remember that the waiting is at least as much fun as the gift, and to wait on the good-but-not-yet-present things in your own life, with anticipation instead of despair.

6. Food. Let’s be honest, no one in the history of humankind has ever woken up and said, “My goal is to overeat repeatedly and constantly for the next month.” Most of us value health and moderation, not overconsumption. Yet, over the holidays, we live it. And then we can’t experience peace, because peace is the wholeness that happens when what we do is consistent with what we believe. You have permission to live according to what your heart—not your stomach—wants, to mess this up because chocolate tastes like heaven, and to start over again when you do.

7. Parties. It’s a season for gathering together, looking our best, and putting our best foot forward. But, if we’re feeling a little cracked beneath the happy façade, a festive crowd can become a place of seeming isolation. You have permission to be honest about your cracks until someone responds, “Me, too,” to find a corner and a conversation with that person, and to ignore everyone else.

8. Energy is contagious. Have you ever been in a mall during the last dwindling hours of the shopping season, or waited in a block-long line for Santa with tired and hungry kids, or stood at the deli counter while the ham was running out? The negative energy is a dis-ease that spreads quickly. There are a few angels among us who can transform this negative energy into love. You have permission to not be one of them. You have permission to want to be one of them, permission smile at the grim-faced stranger, to buy coffee for the impatient guy behind you, to remember the store clerk is overworking herself for peanuts, and to give her a gift, even if it’s as small as calling her by name.

You have permission to be the best and the worst in humanity, to feel crappy, to feel happy, to be you. All of you.

From a therapist’s office, Crappy-Happy Holidays!

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Shasta

    Or, in other words, we have permission to extend to ourselves a bit of grace. Yes, this. Thanks, Dr. Kelly – another great post.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Absolutely, Shasta, permission to extend ourselves a whole bunch of grace.

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    This is the nicest, most thoughtful, and wonderful Crappy Holidays I’ve ever been wished. Thank you — and right back at you!
    And one more thing (typed the perpetually wordy Shelfling): You’re so very right about the importance of not only feeling lousy this time of year, but acknowledging it to others. I’ve been amazed what a gift it can be for us to own it –out loud– that everything is not alright in the company of arms-length friends. Sharing our vulnerabilities gives permission for others to do the same, and if we are present enough to be in the thick of our own mess while being engaged for a friend, we gain so much more than that image of invincibility we lose. Our friendships gain depth, our lives gain support, and we gain a valuable self-knowledge that we can shore others up even on shaky legs.
    Thanks, Kelly.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Your welcome for the Crappy Holiday, Shel! And thank you as always for an insightful reflection. Last week it was “We’re all volunteers,” this week it’s “arms-length friends.” What a great way to describe the presence of real community!

  • Shannon

    Too often we get so wrapped up in what we are “supposed” to feel, we
    dont allow ourselves to just be real. And the truth of the matter is
    that the holidays arent always a joyful time of year for some. As a
    single mom, it’s a reminder of a failed marriage as I sit at the family
    table surrounded by all my married cousins and siblings. It’s a reminder
    of how I cant afford to do for my kids what they do for theirs on a two
    income family. And at some point this season, I will become slightly
    depressed. Usually as I sit alone in front of the Christmas tree, shop
    alone, or wrap presents alone. And I will cry. And I wont feel guilty
    about it. Because I know that those tears are a release of all the pent
    up emotion inside me and pave a pathway for healing. If I keep all the
    negative inside, there’s less room for the positive. I will make
    memories with my kids, be honest with them when Im feeling down (because
    they sense it anyway, and I want them to know that being sad is okay
    it’s just life). I’ll do my family duty and when I feel like I cant take
    it anymore, I’ll leave. Because I’ve tried it the other way. For years I
    just stayed numb. I turned off all emotion as a means of survival, and
    wouldnt allow myself to entertain any emotion, good or bad. But I felt
    dead. And feeling sadness makes happiness that much sweeter. It reminds
    me Im alive. I no longer look at “negative” things as things to be
    avoided. I embrace them. Because I’ve found that when I do, they lose
    their power over me. Think of it this way….we take the warmth of the
    sun for granted most of the year. Complain about it even. But once we
    feel the cold sting of a winter wind on an overcast day, we find a new
    appreciation for that lone ray of sunlight that finds its way through
    the clouds and warms our face. When we struggle in life, when we allow
    ourselves to feel sadness and grief and despair, we learn to appreciate
    even more those simple things that make us smile. I dont know that I
    ever experienced TRUE happiness until I allowed myself to feel TRUE
    sadness. And now that Im no longer afraid to face my emotions, they have
    less power over me. Because fear and love cannot coexist any more than
    light and darkness. One will choke the other out, depending on the one
    you feed.
    So Happy-Crappy Holidays to any other people out there who arent afraid to admit that sometimes the holidays suck. 🙂

    • Christina Haas

      Shannon, you are amazing! What wisdom, grace and courage! I am a single mom too, and have done everything the “traditional” way. What a burden that can be! This year for Thanksgiving, we did very little traditionally and it was the best holiday I have in memory.

      I totally agree with you about letting ourselves feel what we need/want to feel – we are so afraid of our feelings sometimes that we stay in a safe zone rather than live with passion.

      I wish you a beautiful mix of Happy Crappy holidays!

    • drkellyflanagan

      This is one of the bravest things I’ve ever read, Shannon. You have beautifully captured the absolute necessity and importance of learning how to feel the full range of human emotions. Thank you for having the courage to feel all of yours; it is an en-couragement to all of us.

  • Julia Schmidt

    “We’re simply learning again about the work of forgiveness. It isn’t a single event. It has to happen over and over again”

    THIS!! I finally got this concept a month ago, when I had to forgive that difficult person in my life yet again… Once again I had to let go of the situation, once again I had to remind myself that there wasn’t intentional harm at the root of the behavior… but somehow, this time, after I had let it go, I arrived at a deeper place of peace, and I realized that every time I had forgiven, I had gone a little deeper with it. I fully expect to have to forgive again, but knowing that it’s not just insane repetition of the same action expecting new results, but actual PROGRESS that I’m making as I forgive, makes all the difference.

    And, you know, holidays and traditions are great and all, but where did we get the idea that we have to do them “right?” And what is “right” anyway? Thank you so much for writing this!! Sharing now… 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Well said, Julia, the peace grows every time! Progress often does not look the way we expect it to look, does it? And neither does “right.” : )

  • Thank you again, Kelly, for this great post. It is true that the holidays often bring us down as well as up. I have found it to be so because we think of holidays as times when we gather with family, friends and loved ones and sometimes those loved ones are no longer here on earth in their physical form anymore. So we miss them. But as Shel said below in her comment that when we are open and honest, we allow DEPTH to our friendships and relationships. I think often this is something we lack today. Being honest about our real feelings can help to create this. For me, this is important and your post reminded me of that. Thank you again, and Crappy-Happy Holidays and Messy-Merry Christmas!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Right on, Jenny. And I like the way you use the word “allow.” Depth doesn’t need to be manufactured. It’s already there. We just have to get out of the way and let it happen. I hope you find the deepness in your Crappy-Happy Holidays and Messy-Merry Christmas!

  • Christina Haas

    I had to share this one – so well said! There is this idea that we have do things a certain way to stick with tradition, but then we miss out on all the parts that build authentic connection with others. For my time, that’s what its all about – not doing any of it “perfectly” or according to tradition, but in a way that fosters love and tenderness and compassion.

    I have been struggling with Thanksgiving for the past three years and this year I finally got it right. Right for us was no turkey dinner with stuffing or cranberry sauce. Right for us was going to the beach as a family. Having a dinner of meatloaf and potatoes. Singing Bohemian Rhapsody in the car with the kids (ages 10-20) while we looked at Christmas lights. Laughing and having fun together, we had a great day.

    Happy Crappy holidays Dr. F! Thanks for your resonant, thoughtful blogs. They are a highlight in my week.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Christina, I love this! I love that you quit letting your head tell you what you should do and let your heart show you what you wanted to do. It is very difficult to go wrong when we’re operating in that way. It’s fun to think that one of your new traditions may be meatloaf and Queen! : )

  • alisa

    I love this post. Thank you so much. My husband and I have recently separated….with the intention of reconciliation. But we need a little time alone to work on ourselves and become equal partners. We are recovering victim-rescuer partners. In this holiday season, it is difficult to amid how difficult things are at the moment in one sense….but in the other sense this feels right and I am happy and I feel hopeful we will come together again better than before. And love each other in a much healthier way than before. This will truly be the best gift we can give ourselves and our young son.

  • BellaTerra66

    Omg, I feel better already! 🙂 Thanks so very much!

  • BellaTerra66

    When my 3 children were 7, 10 and 11.5, my husband and I were just too frazzled from all the Christmases we had spent shopping for presents — and THEN we would be up until 2-3 a.m. on Christmas morning because we had to assemble toys, etc. We asked the kids if they would accept this arrangement: one present from us parents, one big stocking full of little (but nice) stuff, and a little money. Then every other month, throughout the year, they could have another present. They loved the idea — but I was still worried that on Christmas morning, when there would be so few presents under the tree, they would regret their decision. But that Christmas morning came, and they LOVED the new arrangement. They actually got to enjoy what they had received. So that arrangement stayed in place for as long as they lived at home. And the holidays were enjoyable for them AND my husband and I.

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