December is a time of summaries – both personal and global. And I do not think anyone has any doubts that the past year has not been easy in both dimensions. With the ongoing pandemic, a war broke out, which affected our closest neighbours – often colleagues from work, often friends – and at the same time touched our lives. First, we felt a threat that we had perhaps never experienced before. Secondly, rampant inflation made the economic situation even more complicated, showering us with high prices in stores and sky-high bills. Therefore, we carry a lot of burden that can seriously upset our mental balance. And yet one of the happiest times of the year is approaching – Christmas holidays. Will they be as usual? In what mood will we prepare for them? How will we survive them? And what will happen next?
Holidays do not mean the same to everyone. Today, they are also associated with very difficult emotions. Some of us, right now, may experience extra heavy, unimaginable loneliness and longing for someone who will be missing at the Christmas table for the first time. We cannot forget about those who are struggling with serious health issues. It would seem that these are hopeless situations, bringing along a lot of different fears and concerns that interfere with building a festive mood.
“In such case, when fate puts us in the face of something that often exceeds our mental capabilities – we lose the sense of control and faith in the future” – says psychologist Joanna Krzyżanowska.
She adds: “The state of lack of health has a particularly severe impact on those who have so far been characterised by a strong belief in their agency. In the event of a difficult experience of illness or other loss, such as the death of a loved one, let us give ourselves permission to express and accept our thoughts and emotions. Let us name them; let us give ourselves time to get used to it. If we are ready, it is worth analysing our resources – not financial ones, but mental ones. They combine everything on which we built our inner well-being until the time of a difficult event. Let us also consider our own competences. What are our strengths, skills, talents and previous experiences that may be useful at this moment? We can certainly use them to reorganise our lives and develop new ways of functioning even in this difficult life situation.” Only by being in harmony with ourselves and our needs can we really feel something. Even if these are not pleasant reflections. We certainly should not suppress them.
According to Alicja Starosta, a psychologist, TSR therapist and crisis interventionist, “Experiencing all the emotions that come to us, however heavy and difficult they may be, can help us find the way to honesty, the way to ourselves”.
Then comes the prospect of higher self-awareness. But not only. By opening a kind of Pandora’s box and sharing our fears or concerns with our loved ones, we are able to really get closer to them. “Let us give ourselves permission to have an honest conversation this Christmas. Perhaps it will bring us relief, support and even a sense of closeness – depending on what we need most at the moment” – adds Alicja Starosta.
Can we apply the same approach to economic problems as well? I am thinking primarily of those who today face the dilemma of how to organise these few special days in December and spend their sleepless nights asking: “What can I afford this year?”. On the other hand, we are so used to winding up the pre-Christmas madness, creating an endless list of dishes on the table and expensive gifts. So many things can distract us during this period: earrings for mum, a sweater for grandpa, salad, cheesecake, Greek-style fish… and a Christmas tree must not be missing – but who will decorate it? Windows are still unwashed… Aren’t gingerbread cookies burning in the oven? Where to look for help?
The solution may seem trivial, but everyone is able to implement it in their own lives: in order not to get lost in this madness, it is enough to slow down a bit and reflect on what matters most to us at the moment. The fact that the table will bend from excess food, or maybe the fact that we will spend time with our loved ones?
Someone may reply: “But it is not so obvious” because there are those among us who will be reluctant to celebrate this particular holiday. And for a whole bunch of different reasons. As emphasised by Agata Fryś, a psychologist and psychotraumatologist: “We notice an upward trend in the number of people who are single by choice, but also single by chance. It is about a kind of empty house experience. Today, such people dream of a real bond, but at a certain point in their lives they chose something else – for example, a career. As a consequence, they will spend Christmas time with a family they do not really like.”
And, consequently, there are concerns about the festive atmosphere – will the brother start to question our choices again? Or will Dad remind you how many things in your life have gone wrong? What if uncle Stefan may drink too much and start provoking others, igniting conflicts? “Let us not expect him to suddenly change his political views, or that grandma won’t ask when there will finally be some children” – says Katarzyna Haler, psychotherapist and wellness coach. “Instead, let us look for ‘islands’ of good contact – the ground where you can meet without tension. Maybe the uncle travelled to some interesting destinations that are worth asking him about, and grandma may finally share that secret recipe for the best cheesecake? Let us take matters into our own hands, suggest other topics, turn on some favourite music or run a movie that can put everyone in a good mood and become the subject of conversation.” “On the other hand, it is best to prepare for these uncomfortable questions in advance. If we anticipate certain situations, it will also be easier for us to react to them without unnecessary emotions,” emphasises Alicja Starosta. Besides, let us think: are we able to change someone and their thinking in two weeks? Would we even want to do this? Maybe it is just better to give that person the space to experience everything in their own way? We come back to realising that sometimes some issues can be clarified by an open, honest conversation, an attempt to understand the other person and the reasons for their choices.
„If this extraordinary time is not meant to be an empty tradition, when we sit with clenched lips next to cold family members, chew on the fish we really hate, and smile wryly, unwrapping a gift we do not need, then let us, as soon as possible, ask this: “Why do it?”
Maybe, instead of spending three days together, we can negotiate? Meet your family for a short time. Say a kind word, wish all well, and then take care of yourself – in the company of friends or under a blanket on the couch, reading a book and stroking a cat. For believers, holidays carry a deep meaning. For others, they simply mean time off from work. Let us find a formula that gives the opportunity to respect family tradition but also makes room for other needs or ideas on how to spend Christmas days well. Attempts to persuade someone who does not want to celebrate in a traditional way, forcing them or making feel guilty, usually turn into a disaster – the person gets even more discouraged from attending a meeting.
It is worth looking for a compromise and being flexible. Offer yourself and others not twelve dishes but good will, kindness or even an opportunity to meet.
When someone drops by only to grab a poppy seed cake or for a Christmas breakfast but manages to eat it in a good atmosphere and really happens to be heard out on the occasion, it may turn out to be more fulfilling – for everyone,” emphasises Katarzyna Haler. Joanna Krzyżanowska, in turn, points out that the holiday season can be conducive to opening up to people and new experiences. Closing a certain period, but also the emerging new perspective, allows us to verify what is dependent on us and what is independent, get rid of mental blocks, appreciate patience, and increase our understanding for ourselves and for others.
However, this is not the end of the list of concerns related to the upcoming days. One of them is the concern regarding unfinished projects and chasing deadlines. “In my opinion, it is about the inability to distinguish between private and professional life. And unfortunately, if we have a problem with it in December, it means that we are unable to deal with it throughout other months as well,” says Alicja Starosta. “Let us try to find space to build the ability to set boundaries. Of course, we are talking about a process that takes time, but if we know where our borders are, there is a good chance that we will be able to communicate them in the future. How to do it? In my opinion, our anger at someone taking one step too far should turn on a red light for us and let us know when we should slow down or take a break. But also, as far as this issue is concerned, self-awareness, reflection and an attempt to find a way to balance within oneself are important.” On the other hand, there are more and more situations where these professional duties disappear for good. For some, the tense economic situation means losing a job, either in a collapsing enterprise or in a company that is cutting costs. And there is no doubt – as confirmed by research – that this type of experience is one of the most stressful moments in life. The fear of tomorrow intensifies and the question arises again of how to even think about joyful celebration in these circumstances.
“The tradition of Christmas seems to promise us a lot,” says Katarzyna Haler. “It evokes fantasies of a harmonious meeting at the Christmas Eve table, full of touching celebrations. But the reality is much more complex. Let us remember that the holidays are intertwined with our everyday life as it is, at the very moment – often in a rush, full of tension and desire for it to be better.
We wish to escape all difficult experiences, and as a result, fears grow – multidimensional fears for the future and security, including political and economic ones. In the face of inflation, it may turn out that some habits need to be modified: being more cautious with gifts and planning less lavish holiday meals. It is good to make our Christmas ideas realistic by simply bringing them down to earth. It helps to enjoy what we have instead of being driven by the frustration of not being able to create the ideal. Let us not be afraid to lower our expectations. Hollywood Christmas does not exist! Let us not delude ourselves that it would be perfect. Conflicts in the family do not disappear, and adaptive abilities have their limits. We meet a group that we rarely hang out with on a daily basis. The house fills up and personal space shrinks. These are the days when there is a lot of everything. Lots of family, food, and stimuli. Just not enough time for yourself. It would be good to create sort of an emotional first aid kit – a set of handy tools and remedies for typical Christmas worries: the ability to listen, speak calmly, not judging. A balm that allows you to let go of yourself and be easy on others without stress. Concentrated drops of kindness and understanding.
Because Christmas is not just colourful lights and expensive gifts, but also hardship, namely our life in a nutshell. How to apply such a first aid kit in practice? Let us reflect on what was the most difficult for us a year or two ago during this period. Let us prepare for the fact that it may be similar now, and let us ask ourselves what we can do differently this time.
Let us take the pressure off the others, let us share the responsibilities – it is a good opportunity to spend some time together.” Let us listen to ourselves but let us also try to understand others. There is great power in the process of self-reflection. “Yes, again, it is very important to engage in such an internal dialogue,” confirms Agata Fryś. “This may be one of the most important attempts to look at our values: what do we want to spend our time and money on, what does trigger our emotions or nerves. And what does really lie beneath all that window scrubbing or shouting at the children who did not organise their clothes in the closet neatly enough or at the husband who has not yet washed the car. It is not necessarily about chastising oneself for having those needs, but rather about understanding them and finally finding a personal way to experience the holidays this year.”
It seems that when we listen to our own voice and determine internal motivations, then no compromise regarding a few days in December will look so terrible anymore. And it can even bring some kind of relief or even be a source of hitherto unknown pleasure.
As Katarzyna Haler argues, even in overcoming all adversities, and on the other hand, in changing one’s approach, in striving for balance, it is worth seeing the source of optimism. “First of all, we are all more tense, more anxious, looking into the future with concern. Secondly, these difficult experiences allow us to appreciate what we have – the loved ones we can count on. Since the beginning of the pandemic, it is clear that people are going through an intensive process of verifying their existing values: what is important and really needed to live well? It turns out that thanks to the confrontation with the crisis, it is much easier for us to see the strength inherent in simplicity, in the smallest things. To eventually see what has been close for so many years, and yet we did not notice it… And finally, to just appreciate it.”
It is in this process that we can see great hope, which in our culture is called the mother of the stupid and associated with naivety, but at the same time, it is listed as one of the Christian virtues. “In psychology, we like to look at it pragmatically,” emphasises Katarzyna Haler. “What can rousing hope offer us? It turns out that it can deliver tangible benefits. It is a bit of a superpower: it strengthens mental resilience, helps to cope with difficulties, increases the sense of agency, and finally reduces anxiety.
But it is important to remember that we are talking about hope here as an active attitude manifested in action. This is the answer to the question of what I can do to make this better reality that I want actually come to existence. We infuse ourselves with hope when we recognise that what we want is possible, regardless of the difficulties that may arise along the way. And this is its another advantage – it helps to act persistently. Hope does not mean expecting that everything will go smoothly. It gives you the strength to face reality.”
To face the world that surprises us and the new challenges it brings, we need hope as a new force, but not one based on idle dreams, on waiting for something to come to us as if by magic. “Simply, it is important that it is about achievable things. Let us adapt our intentions to our capabilities, and hope will bring us much more,” says Agata Fryś. “Let us work on our ‘new self’ in small steps, run to the goal, but not necessarily sprint – at our own pace so that we do not get hurt along the way.”
This solution applies not only to the Christmas period, but also – what is important – to the upcoming New Year. “It is worth approaching it, as well as yourself, with kindness and tenderness” – adds Katarzyna Haler. “In fact, spurts entitled “New Year, New Me” and attempts to introduce revolutionary changes are a recipe for failure and frustration. Instead of creating yet another list of resolutions, let us try to think about our needs: what should be important this year? Choose a few guiding words, e.g. health, relationship, rest. Let these catchwords become guideposts when making everyday decisions. And, again, be careful – changes are best introduced in small steps because it gives a chance for real long-term integration into everyday life. Then they become habits that build the life we wanted.” In turn, Alicja Starosta points out that every time we think about starting a new habit, the so-called activation energy is born, i.e. the initial phase of unconscious optimism (the first of the five phases of the emotional cycle of change), when the introduction something new into our lives seems very simple to us. It is worth following it immediately, when the first thought appears. January is often associated with change. It is conducive to a sense of new energy – but we also have to put a lot of effort to persevere in the resolution. And let us also be aware that it is never easy. “Introducing a new habit means going back to the old one about four times.”
In conclusion, in harmony with the inner self, let us build new hopes and act – this will help us fight our fears. But I feel we can do even more. To achieve a lasting and stable balance, let us try to awaken a kind of mindfulness in ourselves – mindfulness for our own needs, mindfulness for other people.
Or perhaps, as Joanna Krzyżanowska adds, for the world and its beauty often hidden in its small, everyday details. “Let us think about how in a few years we will evaluate what is so annoying today. What will be worth remembering, and what will surely pass away.”
Each of us must find our own answers. It’s definitely worth doing. For the upcoming holidays, for the new year, for a fuller life in harmony with yourself.