ENCOUNTERING DISAPPOINTMENT AT HOLIDAYS
Jenna was just about to turn 30 and couldn’t wait to see what her friends had planned for her on her birthday!!! Although she hadn’t heard anything from them, she continued to drop hints all month about her favorite restaurant, also adding that she “loves to go dancing,” thinking they’d be responsive. When her birthday finally came, her friends did in fact plan a night for her!!! That is, they planned a “spa night-in,” complete with with movies, popcorn, and home-manicures. Jenna was glad that her friends came together to celebrate her, but feels upset that it was just not in the way she wanted.
Rory was dating his boyfriend, Paulo, for nearly a year and looked forward to their upcoming anniversary. His mind raced with all the exciting possibilities that might await him on the big day – what would Paulo do? Perhaps flowers, a thoughtful card, or the perfect gift that only he would understand!! After all, Rory himself previously planned all these kinds of special things for Paulo. When the big day got here, however, Rory received a store-bought, generic card and box of chocolates that looked like it came from the pharmacy below their apartment. Now he’s wondering whether this is what he has to look forward to for years to come.
The holidays are here again, and Cheri finds herself in the same emotional posture as last year, and most years in recent history — somewhere between sad and fearful. Growing up, the holidays were such bright and cheerful times for her, with her family participating in both Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations, representing both her paternal and maternal religious and ethnic backgrounds. As a younger adult and parent of her own children, those traditions had continued all the way through their formative years, and Cheri didn’t honestly anticipate they’d stop. But now, at the age of 50-something, the tides have turned again. She thought the “lack of emphasis on family” (as she calls it) that her children displayed during college and graduate school would eventually come to an end, but it hasn’t. Or, well, they seem to be somewhat exclusively focused on their own marriage relationships and aren’t much interested in gathering at their parents’ houses any more. Cheri knew there was something normal and even healthy about this, but she was having the trouble making the transition herself. As the holidays approached, she felt a distinct sense of loss, and some large degree of apprehension about experiencing that loss afresh. She wasn’t sure she mattered anymore.
Celebrations Really Are Special!!!
Birthdays and holidays are some of the most special days of the year for many people, and this is a reality that cuts across cultural lines of all types. People of differing races, genders, ethnicities, religious/spiritual orientations, etc. all celebrate milestones!!! These are occasions to gather with family and friends, to celebrate loved ones and important events, and opportunities for sharing meals and gifts. We have expectations for our birthdays and holidays – that our significant other will surprise us with an amazingly thoughtful gift, that our friends will take us out to dinner, that our coworkers will remember and bring a birthday cake into the office.
Most of us have at least a handful of fond memories of this type. At Change, Inc., one of our therapists recalled special Christmas and Birthday memories.
“For my 18th birthday, my parents took me out to a nice dinner and then actually surprised me with a surprise scavenger hunt party involving all my best friends. I say ‘actually surprised me’ because I tend to think of myself as a hard person to surprise! It was incredibly thoughtful and I felt so loved. I also remember a particular Christmas when my new boyfriend (now my husband) flew to meet my family in Milwaukee and had stayed up all night previously finishing several handmade cutting boards he created for my parents. I remember the warmth and happiness I felt seeing all my loved ones get along so well, and care for each other.”
Yet, for most of us, we also find that there are memories of holidays or intended celebrations which cause feelings of hurt or disappointment. Our therapist continues.
“There have also been plenty of birthdays and other holidays that ended in disappointment, emptiness, and anger. Things that happened on these days were far from my expectations, whether my friends simply didn’t come together and plan the right birthday dinner for me, or my boyfriend didn’t get me flowers for our anniversary, etc. On each of these disappointing occasions, I never shared my feelings with anyone. I pretended like everything was fine, while really I felt sad or mad. I kept my reactions to myself because I didn’t want to seem ungrateful or like a whiny little kid. I was ashamed of my sadness and angry with the people I expected to please me, friends and family I really wanted to feel close and connected with but had let me down.”
You’re Not Alone
As the above example makes clear, you’re far from alone when you’re feeling let down by friends or family at holidays or celebrations. In fact, one might argue that we’re never so fully connected to one another as when we have these sort of loneliness-producing experiences, and indeed, loneliness is itself a fundamentally human experience.
Help for Holiday Blues
1. Are you communicating?
At some point, the therapist mentioned above “had a striking revelation. How could I expect my friends and family to know exactly what I wanted on my birthday? Did I think they could read my mind? How unfair of me to create these expectations for others, without sharing them, and then feel angry when they didn’t meet them. It was all kind of silly, really. I realized there was another way I could set myself up for my birthdays and other special occasions that might end in less disappointment and anger. I could take control! I could ask my husband to get me flowers, I could pick the restaurant for my birthday and invite my friends, I could tell my parents how important it is for me to receive a card from them.”
In other words, as the saying goes, sometimes we “have not because we ask not.” If you can survey recent holiday experiences and find that they are laden with non-communicated desires or expectations, we encourage you to take a leap of faith the next go-round and try communicating your needs.
2. Has your communication gone sour?
On the other hand, perhaps you’ve already communicated your needs. Indeed, many of the people we meet with in counseling are precisely frustrated because they’ve attempted to communicate their needs over and over to no avail. Each year they mention their wishes and desires, but no one seems to pay attention. In time, this may lead to a cycle of putting forth your needs, not having them met, then withdrawing and/or acting out in hurt and anger. By the time the cycle rolls around the next year, your mixture of sadness from loss and fear of repeating the cycle may make things worse in that when you put forth your needs, they end up sounding passive-aggressive. “Well, you all know that I really want to be together for the holidays, but no one cares what I think, so…” By the time this stage is reached and communication has gone sour, it’s usually time to call for help. Your first instinct might be to get the family together and try again to communicate your needs, but it’s often helpful to work on your own feelings first, and to let someone help you ferret out what is yours to manage and what truly is the responsibility of your friends and family.
3. Remember…relationships change.
Sad though it may feel to confess, remember that relationships change over time through a normal, developmental progression we call the “lifespan” or just “life.” This is normal. This is healthy. It is good that relationships change as we age and gather more/new/different information and experiences, and we would think of it as stagnant and unhealthy if they didn’t! But insofar as holidays and celebrations are markers of the passage of time, this naturally means they too must change. Our holidays can’t be the same at 25 as they were at 10, can’t be the same at 45 as they were at 25, and so on. They key is learning to re-orient at each impasse. It’s normal to feel loss and to grieve over changes, especially when we loved the way things were. But it’s also healthy to experience each new stage as not just the loss of what was, but the gaining of what is. And therein lies the difficulty…
4. Are you developing your here and now?
Sometimes, in the panic and grief we feel alongside changes to holidays and celebrations in our lives, we fail to realize that these emotional experiences, while normal and typical as we age and move into new stages of our lives, can still become our main focus. In time, looking at the past can become a clever way to avoid looking at our present, so clever that many of us miss it altogether and would deny such a possibility if someone inquired about it. But the point is that if your here and now doesn’t look like you thought it would, or just doesn’t look like you want it to, ask yourself the following questions: “What would it take to reorient myself to the life I have? What would need to happen for me to feel content and at peace with myself and my current circumstances?” If those questions cause you to feel triggered or reactive, or if they feel just too overwhelming to explore on your own or with friends/mentors, it’s absolutely the type of existential question we help with.
Need some guidance with all of these? We can help!