We are once again approaching the Holiday season; the time of year when sadness, unhappiness, and depression are at an annual high. Therapists and mental health experts tell us that unrealistically high expectations are a major cause of holiday depression; especially in the letdown days following the holidays.
There is certainly no shortage of newspaper articles or television specials this time of year focused on holiday depression, however, most of them fail to discuss two of the most important insights or factors that lead to holiday depression. Both of these insights are related to the power of family stories.
The Inner Child
The first is the realization or self-knowledge that each of us has a six to seven-year-old “inner-child” living in our unconscious mind. Our inner-child contains all the memories, emotions, and learning’s of childhood. Its most important function is to keep us safe. To accomplish this task, our inner child uses a primary survival skill from childhood called “splitting” to divide the world into black and white categories such as good or bad, and right or wrong.
Because of splitting, there is seldom an emotional middle ground for our inner-child. Our inner-child experiences the holidays as either perfect and very exciting or awful and very disappointing.
The bright colored lights, the background sounds of holiday music that fill the stores, the inspirational stories and TV movie re-runs of forgiveness, love, reconciliation and healing are all used by our inner-child to magically turn the ordinariness of everyday life into a few days of perfection and wonderful excitement.
Unfortunately, neither magical thinking nor belief in the illusion called perfection are helpful. In the real world, the holiday season too often tends to bring emotional stress, anxiety, fatigue, financial stress, endless shopping trips, impatient crowds, routine upsetting houseguests, and the sadness of knowing there are friends and family that will not be with us.
These holiday stressors are significant emotional factors that tend to cause or encourage over eating, the consumption of too much alcohol, and exhaustion from trying too hard to make everything “wonderful”. Instead of the perfection and magical wonder our inner-child was anticipating, the world is experienced as bad and awful. We find ourselves feeling overwhelmed, disappointed, sad, and mildly depression.
Intense all-or-nothing inner-child feelings are normal, but they are rarely helpful. The insight and self-knowledge that our inner-child often controls our emotional state is very important; especially if we want to maintain realistic expectations around the holidays.
In other words, if we can remain consciously awake and aware that we have an idealistic inner-child as we approach the holidays, it will much easier to avoid the emotional roller coaster that leads to feelings of disappointment and emotional letdown after the holidays.
Stories from the Past
The second insight that can be helpful in reducing or eliminating post-holiday “blues” is a conscious awareness of the regressive influence that the stories from our past can have on the emotions of our inner-child. Family members and friends seem to delight in telling those stories about us,
Story telling is common when family and friends gather to celebrate holiday meals together and these stories from our past, and especially stories about our childhood, can be great fun to listen to, but they often stimulate the emotions our unconscious inner-child and regress us back to the powerless feelings of childhood.
These stories are rarely told to intentionally ridicule or harm us, but they can be emotionally painful for our inner-child. When the laughter fades away, the mood of our inner-child can quickly slide into sadness, shame, or depression.
It is important to remain conscious of the feelings and emotions that the stories generate inside us. For example, the stories might be funny, but do they tend to be shaming? Do they portray us as competent or incompetent? Who is the “hero” or “heroine” in the story? Is it you or is it someone else? Are the stories affirming your strengths or are they embarrassing incidents from the past?
Staying grounded in our present-day “adult-self” and paying conscious attention to the emotional “tone” of the stories being told about us can help us care for the vulnerable inner child. We may need to remind ourselves intentionally that we have grown; that we are significantly wiser and more competent than we were when the “funny” event in the story took place.
Separating the intense feelings of a sad or unhappy inner-child from the adult emotions of the present moment will be very helpful in maintaining our happiness and our over-all sense of well-being as we move through the coming holiday gatherings.