December brings up a lot of different things for people. It can bring stress if you get overwhelmed by all the tasks you have to get through. December can bring up memories of past holidays, whether sad or joyful. It can bring up grief if you are dealing with a loss this past year or two. For children, the holiday season often brings anticipation. Some adults feel the gravitational pull of their family of origin sucking them back in to unhealthy patterns.
Even one of the founders of family therapy, Murray Bowen, wrote an essay called "Going Home" in which he explained how he could be a happily individuated adult most of the year, but could regress when back visiting his parents, like at holiday times. It is so easy to get pulled in to old patterns if you're not conscious and intentional.
Here are some ideas for staying emotionally healthy during December and into the New Year:
1. If you have experienced a loss this year --- the death of a close family member or close friend, a divorce, separation or break-up, or a move far from your support system, be patient with yourself during the holidays. You will need to rethink of all your usual December traditions so you can decide whether you want to keep or change them this year. Be flexible with your plans, and don't take on too much. Focus on what will be comforting and supportive.
2. Stay an adult this holiday season. Reconsider demands and expectations made by your family of origin, or your partner's family. Part of individuating is making choices about what is meaningful and enjoyable for you, rather than just doing things by autopilot.
3. Give yourself permission to mix up old patterns. At family gatherings, exercise your power to move closer and visit with the family members you really enjoy and admire. Move away from the negative and toxic people.
4. Keep up your healthy self-care patterns throughout this busy month: keep exercising, eating healthy (even if it's before a holiday party so you're not tempted to eat the wrong things), and get enough sleep and alone time.
5. Share the tasks. Women often feel more burden for holiday tasks. I always encourage families I see in family counseling to hold a family meeting to get everyone signed up to share holiday tasks. Sort through the regular tasks to check and make sure that you focus on holiday traditions that bring joy, as opposed to those that are just an energy drain. People enjoy the holidays more when they help create them, so don't do it all yourself. Share the cooking, the shopping, the decorating and wrapping. Even small children can have fun wrapping gifts if you loosen your standards and provide lots of tape.
6. Get outside yourself. Reach out to an elderly neighbor or volunteer with a local food bank or charity which needs extra help during December in your local community. I promise it will lift your spirits, no matter what you have going on in your own life. Develop your spiritual side.
7. Say 'no' to invitations which sound emotionally taxing. Carry your own boundaries throughout the season. Preserve some down time.
8. Go for the joy. Be sure to sprinkle in some holiday joy. What are the sensory experiences that will activate your creativity, senses and holiday memories? Do you like to smell cookies baking or walk through a Christmas tree lot? Would you enjoy looking at happy photos of holidays past? Could you enjoy a holiday Christmas movie fest? Do you delight in hanging some festive lights? Spending time with children also helps you rekindle the joy of the season.
9. Break up the visit. If you are visiting family during the holiday season or you will be hosting family staying at your house, think through ways to streamline and make the visit less intense. Have some breakfast foods out that guests can do self-serve. Get out for a walk by yourself, and get those endorphins pumping. Don't expect yourself to be "on" for days at a time. Taking a break from hosting or being hosted can help everyone stay less frayed. Help guests to do some things independently if possible.
10. As New Year's Day approaches, think about creating a vision board for 2015. You can use a piece of poster board to pull out pictures and ideas that inspire you in how you want to grow and what you want to experience in the beautiful new year ahead of us. It will serve to remind you that the holidays, while stressful, are fleeting. The last month of the year is a great time to begin setting your intensions for an emotionally healthy 2015, with new goals and new plans.
Move as lightly as you can through the next 4 weeks. A few last inspiring pre-holiday thoughts:
If you are facing a judgmental or critical family, or tend towards perfectionism: "The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself." -Anna Quindlen
If you're worn out by holiday crowds and shopping: "Sharing the holiday with other people, and feeling that you're giving of yourself, gets you past all the commercialism." -Caroline Kennedy
If you need inspiration: "The holiday season is a time for storytelling, and whether you are hearing the story of a candelabra staying lit for more than a week, or a baby born in a barn without proper medical supervision, these stories are about miracles." -Lemony Snicket
Take good care of yourself as you navigate a healthy holiday season. Be sensitive to what you are needing, rather than do things just out of obligation. Give yourself permission to do December your own way.