The Paradox of Holidays, or How to Feel Better when You're Hiding in the Bathroom this Thanksgiving

I’m just gonna say it: the holidays are stressful. 

And not just because there is a lot to do this time of year. They are emotionally stressful, too.

The holidays often have us physically back with our families of origin (or that of our significant other), and all the healthy and not-so-healthy dynamics that come along with it. For all the emphasis on celebration and family bonding and traditions - which can be very nice, don’t get me wrong - there is often an undercurrent of mixed emotions and (failed?) expectations related to all of those celebrations and family bonding and traditions. These mixed feelings often lead to thoughts of what we wish were true in our relationships. And those thoughts can often lead to guilt. In short, the holidays are stressful and guilt-producing for many.

Any hands going up?

Let’s talk about guilt. I think about guilt as being a common response - cognitive and emotional - to a paradox in one’s life. Contradicting narratives. For example, you may feel guilty that you don’t necessarily want to spend your holidays with your family, or some members thereof.  Maybe there is some guilt about how much money you will spend on gifts this year. Or the lack of money available for gifts this year. Perhaps the holiday season in general elicits paradoxical feelings and thoughts for you. I know for myself, while I enjoy the festive aspects of this time of year, I really don’t enjoy the added stress and time pressure of adding “project holiday” to my already over-full schedule.

Like it or not, these feelings are present.  How can we respond in a way that helps us enjoy this time of year (at least a little bit more!) rather than feeling the stress of guilt? Or even worse, dreading the whole season altogether, and closing ourselves off to the joy and warm feelings that are present?

Here are 3 ways to make the paradox of the holidays more tolerable:

  • Notice and own our guilt. First and foremost, we can objectively and non-judgmentally acknowledge our guilt. Really notice it. That may mean acknowledging the shadow feelings that we are having but would rather not be having. All these feelings are there, and their reasons for existing are perfectly valid. The holidays may not be the best time for fully processing some of these feelings. But, it helps to understand and admit that these feelings are likely to pop up when we’re around our family. It’s a perfectly human response. When we take a moment to admit our feelings to ourselves, that alone can help to regulate our emotional energy.
  • Acknowledge what’s creating the guilt. The second thing we can do is understand and acknowledge the duality that creates our guilt. Hold the two (or sometimes more) truths. Hold them together.  Don’t necessarily answer any questions, or even try to fix them. Simply name the various sets of truths that are colliding, and hold them.

    When we think about guilt in this way, it can really break up the "stuck-ness" we feel inside, even if the situation doesn’t necessarily change. We know what we want, and we know what someone else (our parents, perhaps?) wants or expects of us. Or, part of us feels one thing, and another part of us feels another. Where there is dissonance between the two, we can feel guilt and stress. Those feelings are not fun, to be sure, but when we avoid the duality that is real, we are missing out on an opportunity to do anything about it. Instead of avoiding the feelings, which actually causes more internal tension, we can give ourselves the gift of acknowledging the paradox. That will allow us to be with the emotions we have surrounding it, which can be surprisingly soothing.
  • Be Present with the Paradox. Once we acknowledge feelings of guilt - and the conflicting feelings leading to the guilt - we can respond to our feelings by taking some self-encouraging action. Here are a few suggestions for how to make some space for yourself to be present in the midst of the paradox.

    Maybe it’s taking the dog for a walk around the block if tensions get heated. Or just stepping out for some air. You could always offer to help in the kitchen if the relative you’ve got tension with is posted up in the living room.

    Often we don’t necessarily have the best of choices to deal with the paradox we are holding - the plane tickets are booked; the family dinner is happening; in fact, they’re ringing the doorbell right now - and the best we can do is to be present, acknowledge our feelings, and be kind to ourselves.

    Sometimes, we may choose to even deal with the paradox directly, if we’re feeling brave. This just came up at an early family Thanksgiving dinner table conversation at my house: My parents want my sisters and I to attend an anniversary event at the faith community where we grew up and where my parents still attend. My sister asked our father directly, “would you be very disappointed if someone did not attend?” The answer was a strong ‘yes.’” My sister then acknowledged, “So, if we don’t go, we will have to tolerate your disappointed feelings.”  In her response, I heard my sister acknowledge the two truths inherent in this topic: we may not personally “want” to attend the event, but we also may not want to deal with the disappointment that would ensue. It is a situation primed for guilt. Now that the paradox has been named, my sister, anyway, can make her own choice distinct from our father’s stated expectations.  

Here’s a 3-minute, 3-step exercise that can help you stay present during the stress of the holidays. You can do this while you are out walking the dog, compulsively checking Facebook to avoid conversation, or even hiding in the bathroom!

  1. Notice what you are feeling; name the feelings. Notice if there are opposing feelings. That is fine. Name them all.
  2. Focus your breathing in your heart area. Breathe in and out through your heart. You can place your hand on your heart to stay focused. Disengage from your stressful thoughts and feelings as you continue to breathe. They may not go away - in fact, they probably won’t - but this will give you some breathing space between yourself and your feelings.
  3. Identify an attitude or emotion that would help you tolerate this situation.Breathe the feeling of that new attitude through your heart. For example, if you want to be feeling more calm, breathe in and out through your heart as you focus on calm. You may not feel completely calm, but you are taking action to balance out the difficult feelings with a positive one. This can do a lot for our sense of agency and security in the midst of stress.  

As always, if you're feeling truly overwhelmed by the feelings coming up for you around the holidays and need help to process them, my team at Four Corners is here to help.

~My warmest wishes for you this Thanksgiving, 


Hetty Irmer Barnett, LCSW-C, LICSW
Four Corners Counseling & Well-being