Even a wonderful life sometimes doesn’t feel very wonderful when the ghosts of Christmases past don’t just float back, they rush in to remind us how terrible we are or how life’s burdens are just too great. So we stockpile our perceived failures to validate and unwrap old shames and self-hatred. Personal negativity then merges with a larger sense of sadness, fear and helplessness that seems to pervade the internet, airways and streets.
We all miss our morning trains, step in a puddle, stub our shins; everyone is susceptible to a bad day or week. But some have a lower threshold for frustration, and for the slings and arrows of daily existence. This adds up to intense feelings of negativity and isolation.
These feelings can be even more acute during times of high pressure: holiday seasons and end-of-year festivities can often remind us of loves, losses, friendships and moments that have gone awry. Did I give or get the right gift? Did I send the right invite? Did I say the right thing? It’s bad enough to take the tally of the disappointments we’ve had; it’s even worse to feel we ourselves have been disappointing. Both are very powerful, and both are very painful.
These circular thoughts spin out into crushing, unbearable feelings. Some people will seek to avoid those feelings with distraction. Social gatherings can help - surrounded by our friends and family, our feelings of isolation can lessen temporarily. Some will distract with substances, or compulsive coping systems. Wine takes the edge off - but will also blunt the psyche and may even compound the original problem.
It’s the paradox of the defense mechanism: the distraction you use as your getaway vehicle can also drive you off a cliff.
People lean on their coping devices all the more in times of high stress. It is Christmastime that provokes the most bah-humbugs -- worse, the pain that comes from our isolating activities.
In my room with patients, many people have emphasized that it’s this time of year that the raw chill of self-criticism feels the most fatiguing.
Some tell me, they’ve even contemplated ending life, just to stop the pain. I ask them: Is it life you want gone, or just the unbearable feelings?
Let’s revisit disappointment, the feeling around failure that leads to shame. I believe that expectation is the freeway to disappointment. Unattainable expectations we impose on ourselves inevitably result in harsh self- judgment: I couldn’t do it. I have failed. It opens up our secret stash of shame.
Let’s not reject all expectation, though. There’d be no striving, no reaching higher, no excitement about what’s to come. The trick is managing our expectations. It’s ok to have a high bar but it’s not helpful to think in all-or-nothing, black-and-white terms. Terms like: “If I’m not perfect, I’m a loser” or “If I score only a 98 percent, I’m a failure.” It’s easy to see here, but many slip into this thought pattern.
So when you sense yourself going down that road - pause. Evaluate your own yardstick, without using it against yourself as a weapon. This time of year, it’s easy to measure ourselves against our social media peers, or against our own highest expectations, then exact harsh judgment inward. Instead, see an opportunity for sharing in gratitude and kindness for ourselves and others - making this (and all seasons) more filled with light, warmth, acceptance, and wonder.
David Pezenik, L.C.S.W., has a private practice in New York City and is the cofounder of Google’s therapy program.