The holidays bring a lot of this up for people because they’re seeing family of origin more or they’re confronting “what might have been” grief and loss. People find themselves revisiting difficult memories or trying to ignore intrusive thoughts about their self worth or worries. Plus with all of the running around and high expectations of this time of year, it can be even more difficult to stop and breathe or to take care of yourself.
But if you’re serious about breaking the chain, then a first step is letting go of how you think things ought to be and taking measure of the way things are. The holidays are a good time to take stock because it’s so out-sized that underground feelings tend to make themselves known.
People who grow up in chaos react to chaos in one of two ways: they either crave it and go towards it; or they shut down as soon as they see it coming. (Sometimes they have a little bit of both — the chaos feels lousy but it also feels familiar and we tend to be drawn to the things that feel familiar.) Notice when you’re inviting chaos in and notice how it affects you.
Are you over scheduling yourself because it feels somehow right to run yourself into the ground during the holidays? It might feel like your duty or like you have no choice. But is it good for you?
Self care isn’t selfish. For those who grew up in homes that were less nurturing than they ought to have been, self care is part of what’s going to break that chain. When you feel calm and cared for then you will have the capacity to be calm and care for other people.
So how do you start to do things differently?
- Acknowledge that this can be a difficult season because validating your own feelings is an essential part of healing.
- Say no to what you can say no to.
- Say yes only when you really want to say yes.
- If you have to power through a painful visit, schedule time with a loving friend after (even if it’s just a phone call or a quick check-in by text).
- Set boundaries and create breaks. Long visits can be broken up by running errands, walking the dog alone or otherwise giving yourself time away to regroup.
- Less is more during the holidays. We tend to get caught up in continuing traditions that may be more of a burden than a pleasure; it’s fine to take an easier way out. Don’t fret about doing elf on the shelf AND gingerbread houses AND caroling AND a white elephant exchange AND latkes for the neighborhood AND AND AND. More passive traditions are fine like using holiday glasses at dinner during the month or serving peppermint tea before bedtime.
Imagine that there are four people about to get on a ride at the State Fair. It’s the Graviton, the ride where you stand up against the wall with a thin chain hooked loosely in front of you and the ride starts spinning and spinning, faster and faster and then it tilts and the bottom drops out. The only thing that’s holding you in is the centrifugal force of the ride.
One of the people has been on this ride before and knows how it works and loves how it works. That person remains calm. They get off the ride and they’re fine. We’ll call that person A.
The other person hasn’t been on the ride before but assumes that the people running the park know what they’re doing. That person feels nervous. They get off the ride and they’re fine if a little shaky. We’ll call that person B.
The third person doesn’t trust the park owners and thinks that when the bottom drops away that the ride has broken. They’re afraid for their life. They get off the ride sobbing and are greeted by warm, loving friends who embrace them and comfort them. That person is C.
The fourth person doesn’t trust the park owners either and believes the ride has broken, too. Think think they are about to die. When they get off the ride, there is no one there to greet them and they feel miserably alone and abandoned. That person is D.
All four people were on the same ride. All four people had fundamentally different experiences.
Here is the definition of trauma: If you are fearful for your life or the lives of those around you.
It doesn’t matter if the ride was safe if a person does not perceive it as safe. (As an aside? I was told by my mom all of my growing up that those State Fair rides aren’t safe. There is no way I’d get on the Graviton and if I accidentally did? I’d be person C.)
A is going to be fine because they liked the ride, they liked how it worked and how it felt. B is going to be ok, as well, because B has faith that the people in charge know what they’re doing. C will likely be all right, too, because C is immediately surrounded by people who validate their experience and offer comfort and support. But D? D is not going to be OK because what mitigates trauma (and even if this does not look traumatic to everyone there and wasn’t experienced as trauma by everyone there, for D it was) is connection and D has no one to connect with.
This is my message to you. We do not get to decide when people get to be afraid or what their experiences ought to be. There are people in our community who are afraid right now; maybe you are afraid right now. It doesn’t matter if person A or B doesn’t get it; you have a right to your feelings. And what you need — what we need — is to find each other. Mr. Rogers says to look for the helpers and now is the time to do that and now is also the time to be the helpers.
If you are person C or D, please reach out. Find your safe people and start planning some specific ways you can spend time together. There are lots of ways to create good, solid connections and sometimes that’s coffee together, sometimes that’s phone calls, sometimes that’s joining together and organizing, and sometimes it’s joining together to help someone else. We need each other to mitigate our fear when the bottom drops out.
If you are person A or B, please understand that your experience is not everyone’s experience. You may not be afraid, you may even be having fun but we are a community and we must recognize that many people in our community are suffering.
To that end, I am partnering with Columbus Birth & Parenting to host a supportive gathering this Sunday in our offices from 10am to 2pm. We have no idea how many people will be here and we don’t have an agenda; just some ideas to give people space to feel validated and supported. Because the event has gotten larger than we anticipated and because some people who can’t attend would like to feel included, we will be using #hopeandaction on social media to find each other. We encourage you to Tweet, Facebook or Instagram using that hashtag on Sunday in order to connect with like-minded people near you to create and strengthen community ties. If you are currently a client, please know that you are invited, too. I will not acknowledge our connection and will respect your confidentiality but I will welcome your participation. If the fact that I’m hosting this event feels uncomfortable to you, please let me know and we can talk about it. I respect that my clients have diverse experiences, backgrounds and beliefs and want you to know that I support you, period.
Therapists are supposed to be neutral and not bring their politics into the counseling room but if you’re a therapist with a bunch of different Wonder Women all over your wall then it doesn’t take too much guessing to figure that she didn’t vote for the guy who was joking about “locker room talk.” So let’s dispense with the pretending and agree that I’m as disappointed and as sad and as angry as are many of you.
So what now?
We need each other now. Some of us are going to feel more isolated and afraid than others and we need to reach out to them. Some of us have loved ones who may be feeling this more deeply because they are members of those targeted during the campaign; go to them. If you were one of the targets of the campaign, please know that there are people who support you.
I’m hearing a lot of fear from kids in my office (and in my life). Please be mindful of the media you play around them. Check in with them. Ask them what they’re hearing at school. Go to the other adults in their lives and get them on the same page if you can.
Teens can be more vulnerable than we realize. They’re idealistic and when idealism falls, it hurts. A lot. Teens who are members of groups called out during the campaign need your special support. I know that my own daughter has faced more hate speech in the past couple of months and I’ll be keeping a close eye on what’s happening in her school for the duration. You keep an eye on your kids, too, and together we’ll keep them safe.
Also, look for hope. Look for the social justice warriors who have come before us and who are among us now. It feels lonely but we are not alone.
Some Resources in Central Ohio (please feel free to leave additional information about groups you think people ought to know about in the comments below):
Black Lives Matter Columbus (their Facebook group)
Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) provides comprehensive individual and community programs for survivor advocacy and support to LGBTQI survivors of hate and bias violence, discrimination, intimate partner violence, stalking, and/or sexual assault.
Disability Rights Ohio a non-profit corporation with a mission to advocate for the human, civil and legal rights of people with disabilities in Ohio.
Kaleidoscope Youth Center working in partnership with young people in Central Ohio to create safe and empowering spaces for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning and Ally youth through advocacy, education, support and community engagement.
Progress Ohio the state’s leading progressive organization, composed of two non-profits: ProgressOhio.org, a 501 (c) (4) organization formed in 2006 to promote progressive causes, and ProgressOhio Education, a 501 (c) (3) organization.
Standing Up for Racial Justice (list of all the state chapters) is a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice. Through community organizing, mobilizing, and education, SURJ moves White people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability. (Here’s the Facebook group for Worthington.)
There are a lot of therapists out there who are ready, willing and able to sit with you while you grieve, cry, holler, and find ways to move forward. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. WE ARE NOT ALONE.
I have been thinking about family legacies of trauma (I’m working on a longer blog post about that) and one of the things I’ve been thinking about is that when a family knows that the worst things can happen, hope can become a dangerous thing. Not every family that experiences trauma is like this, obviously, but it’s common because people want to be safe. If you’re too hopeful, you might take risks and you might fail.
I think about this when I hear parents dialing down their kids’ big plans.
“Don’t expect to hit a home run right away, kiddo.”
“Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get the lead.”
“Not everyone is going to get an award for this, you know.”
We don’t want our kids to be disappointed when they fail so we prepare them for failure.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” we say. But isn’t that what hope is for?
It’s true that we need our kids to be realistic but reality will do that for them. Telling them not to be excited doesn’t protect them from failure; it just adds an ugly sheen to the excited times before.
I get it, I do. There is nothing more heartbreaking than watching your child’s dreams get dashed. Ugh. Like a dagger to your own heart, I know. Our urge to mitigate that possible disappointment comes from a loving place but it’s spoils the fun and dampens the spirit.
Imagine if we did this with other things like, “Sooner or later you’re going to take a swig of milk and realize it’s gone bad so I think you should just prepare yourself for sour milk every time you drink it. I think you should mistrust the anticipation you have that the milk will be good.”
(Substitute some other example if you are dairy-free. Like apples with bruises or when your salad has the lettuce core in it. Or when your pancakes have those bitter lumps of baking soda.)
Nobody wants to live their life expecting disappointment.
So why not be hopeful? Why not get excited? And then if things don’t work out, we can hug the heck out of each other. It’ll be OK.
If you don’t do this with your kids, you might do this with yourself. You might find yourself gearing up by tearing yourself down. Whose voice is in your ear telling you to be careful? Not to aim too high? Who’s telling you to dial down your dreaming?
And here is Mel Brooks singing Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst, because Mel Brooks can make everything funny including the Judaic legacy of trauma (oh boy does this ring familiar and not just because my dad does a killer Yiddish accent):
Often our suffering comes because we have an idea of how things ought to be and they aren’t that way. The way we think things ought to be, our expectations and disappointments, they are like a rock we keep carrying around even though the rock weighs us down and keeps us stuck.
Sometimes we pick up the rock in our childhood when we get told that the way to a good life is this one particular way. Maybe the rock is our ideas about the career we want to have or the children we want to parent. We have this picture of how it has to be and that becomes our ideal, the rock that we carry into our Real Lives where things are more complicated and often uglier.
Maybe we don’t pick it up. Maybe it’s handed to us when someone tells us that we will be happier if we get prettier or smarter or nicer. Then the rock becomes the perfect self we want to be. We live under the heavy pressure of that flawless version of our imperfect selves.
So the way to happiness is easy, right? Just put down the rock.
But the thing about these rocks is that over the years we get used to carrying them. They may be heavy but we start to believe that they protect us. As long as we’re carrying them then we’re also carrying the hope that we can make them come true and that somehow keeps us safe. It’s scary to think things like, “I might never be as thin as I want to be.” or “I might never find the perfect partner.”
If we put the rock down, then what do we have to cling to? If we put it down, we have to confront the truth that we might need to learn to be happy without those things we so desperately want. And that’s scary.
I have put down rocks in my time and sometimes it’s a gradual thing. I’d try setting it down just for a minute — just around people who felt safe or just in certain situations. I’d keep that rock nearby just in case I needed its protection; it was proof that I wasn’t giving up or giving in, just taking a break.
Eventually I put it down for good and then I felt weightless, which sounds fun but can be scary. After all, if you’re weightless, how will you know if the earth is safely under you? What if you float off into space without a rock to weigh you down? What if you miss all of the people still crouching under their burdens, unable (or unwilling) to join you a few feet off the ground?
It gets better. Eventually you will realize that the rock wasn’t keeping you safe; it was keeping you trapped. You will straighten up and look around and see that right here in this minute, without your view being blocked by that big old boulder you were carrying, you can see the good things right in front of you.
That rock, it was lying. It was telling you that you couldn’t be happy until this or until that but when you put it down — put it down for good — you’ll see that your happiness is where you make it. You can find it wherever you like.
So go ahead. Put down the rock.
Balance isn’t a goal; it’s a practice. We tend to think of balance as something we achieve but balance, by its very nature, is temporary. We are constantly shifting the weight of our attention to accommodate change.
Imagine you’re the woman on the tightrope in the illustration above (and we all are the woman on the tightrope), you’re stepping out carefully, your arms flung out as you teeter this way and that. You shift your weight to maintain equilibrium. Even if you choose to stand still you have to contend with air currents that may catch you off guard, sudden gusts of wind that upset your temporary stillness. You are not in a state of balance, a place to stay at rest; you are balancing.
When we can accept balance as a practice then it’s much easier to accept that there will be times when we have to shift our attention. Sometimes you’ll have a great exercise routine going and then you’ll have an injury or a schedule change or the gym will close. Or you’ll finally figure out how to get your family fed more or less happily and someone will develop an allergy or start soccer or you’ll just burn out on cooking the same things all the time.
There will be times when one part of your life will demand more attention and these attention-grabbing events (new babies, new jobs, new relationships) will create disequilibrium; that’s the nature of those big events. You may temporarily lose sight of the other things that are important to you. When this happens, you may suddenly realize you’re on a tightrope that’s 50 feet above the ground and you may feel afraid.
It’s ok. Take a deep breath. You know how to do this.
Remember, the trick to balancing on a tightrope is to hunker down and lower your center of gravity. You will need to fold in for a bit and concentrate on your core. You will need to let some things go for a little while.
But you will get your footing again. You will be able to stand tall and begin shuffling forward, tilting this way and that, figuring out how to walk this tightrope of life with the new weight of those changes.
This is life. This is the nature of balancing. Because balance is a verb.