In this part of the world, December and the end of the year is associated with some kind of holiday or vacation. Whether your time is spent opening presents under a tree or going out for really good Chinese food and a movie, we live in a society that recognizes Christmas and New Years as statutory holidays where lots of people take time off from paid work. What strikes me most this year about the holiday season is thinking about how we approach “vacation” or “holiday” time. Why is it that the biggest treat we seem to give ourselves is excess? Sleeping late, over-eating, over-spending, over-drinking, staying up late, taking a break from the exercise routine, watching lots of TV, and being sloth-like…in just reading that synopsis, my initial, instinctual reaction is: BEST VACATION EVER! I have looked forward to and lolled around in this vacation itinerary many times. But then when I look back at each one, I think: Ugh. I actually felt like garbage. It makes me feel more like I can’t wait to get to January 2. Why is it that we tend to launch headfirst into the 7 deadly sins and call that fun?
In part, I can quite easily blame the consumer culture we live in—advertising lets us know that there are so many things that would make our lives better without our having to do much…thereby encouraging having more time to sit around to enjoy sinning. We can get totally hot bodies without changing how we eat or going to the gym and we can save time by buying machines that will do many things for us. We can aspire to use credit cards to pay for vacations where we can stuff ourselves with food at any time of day or night, and lay on the beach soaking up the sun and doing nothing. We don’t even need to go to the bathroom as long as we have a swim-up bar. But of course we feel like we need to take time to relax and sit around. We live in a culture that encourages us to work as much as we can, spend as much time with our family as we can, keep our homes as clean as we can, and do it all without seeming like we’re stressed, because that would mean we‘re too uptight.
I highlight the role of culture not just as an easy cop out, but to point to an idea that many of the ways we try to resolve problems in our lives (and in therapy) is through focusing on what we, as individuals, can do about such matters. Although it is true that we can really only change ourselves (just talk to anyone who has tried to change someone else!), I have found that guilt and shame creep in when we remove ourselves from the greater cultural context that shapes our experiences. Our emotional states come from the interplay between our individual make-up and the environmental forces around us. This is partly why two people can be in a similar situation, but have different reactions, as well as how to people can be quite similar, but due to living in different types of environments, their reactions to life can be quite different.
So if our emotional well-being involves both our personality and the life space we’re living in, it becomes important to target our coping efforts at both sides of this equation. Sometimes we overindulge because the structure of our lives needs work. We may rush headlong into gluttony not because we are selfish or lazy, but because our needs aren’t getting met through our work or through our relationships. It’s also that the holidays themselves can be a stressful time with travel, cooking, cleaning, and entertaining people with whom we have relationships that are often full of baggage. We feel pressure to be a part of a Normal Rockwell holiday, which can leave us feeling like there is something wrong with us when perfection inevitably never arrives.
Our first instinct to cope with these disappointments may be to turn to excess; especially because everywhere we look, we are told that this is how to relax and have a good time. Perhaps rather than feeling guilty about overdoing it at the Christmas buffet or at the bar on New Years’ Eve, we can cut ourselves some slack by having compassion for ourselves and understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. But this also might point to areas of our lives that need work, to live a more balanced life, so that we don’t feel the need to numb ourselves with turkey (or tofurkey!) legs and booze. Even if we don’t feel like we need major change in our lives, pushing back against cultural pressures to work hard, party hard can help any of us.
I remember working at a community mental health centre and the executive director there had a tradition for midnight on New Year’s Eve—he and his three late adolescent/young adult kids would go out for a midnight run, to start the year off right. This sets an intention about well-being and health, rather than focusing on whooping it up and making sure you have someone to kiss when the ball drops in New York City. Although different from what many think of as a celebration, their moonlit runs were an enchanting tradition that didn’t leave them feeling like they needed a vacation from their vacation.
I’d encourage you to look at your holiday habits more closely. Use this time to reflect on what you want your life to look like both in terms of the big picture, and the day-to-day. This means looking for ways you can treat yourself that might still feel like a treat 12 to 18 hours later. Set the intention to make the holidays a peaceful time, rather than striving for a perfect time that may lead you to a wha’ happened time. You may find that meeting your own needs is more relaxing and less guilt inducing than the traditional alternatives.