The holidays are here, and it's a difficult time for some people. There are lots of ideas about what the holidays should be like: a loving, supportive family all gathering together to celebrate, sharing family time, all getting along well. Just add snow and something wonderful cooking in the kitchen. We want the Norman Rockwell view of the holidays.

As it turns out, even Norman Rockwell didn't have that happy family. I recently read American Mirror, a new Rockwell biography by Deborah Solomon with a psychological look at the artist's life and work. His childhood years weren't that happy. His mother was a hypochondriac, self-involved, and they lived in a boarding house for many years because she was too overwhelmed to cook or care for the family. As adults, he and his brother stopped any contact, with his brother writing to lament the fact that he didn't know anything about Norman or his family. In his own adult life, happiness and close family relationships were elusive. Norman was married 3 times, worked 7 days a week until he got dementia, and wasn't that involved as a husband or father. Appearances aren't always what they seem: even the families portrayed in his paintings were usually assembled groups of strangers.

There is pressure during the holidays to have a close family, decorate your home, buy meaningful and expensive gifts, cook excellent meals, and feel happy inside.

What if you don't feel happy?

Not all families are close. For some people, the holidays underscore the gap where meaningful extended family relationships don't exist. You may have had an emotional cut-off in your family, with some family members not speaking to you.

This might be your first holiday season after the death of a family member or person close to you. 

This could be your first year coping with the changes and loss of a divorce. Maybe you share custody of your children and will be without them for some or all of the holidays.

You might be coping with depression. For people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, these short winter days can be extremely challenging, even before you add in holiday tasks.

How can you rethink the holidays if it seems overwhelming or difficult?

1. Give yourself options. You can keep the usual traditions, or give yourself permission to change things up.

2. Do extreme self care. During the holidays, keep up your exercise, your healthy eating plan, and schedule some alone time.

3. Do something different. If you have never volunteered before, starting now might really give your mood a boost and put things in perspective. No matter what your loss or difficulty, there is always someone who needs your help.

4. Give yourself permission to say no. Several of my clients that have become sober this
year are opting out of party situations that might put their sobriety at risk. Great choice! You can also take your own car to visit family, and shorten up the time frames on visits with family members who stress you out.

5. Carry your own holiday boundaries. In family gatherings and work events, seek out the people you enjoy and resonate with. Focus on the people you enjoy. Minimize the contact with the Debbie Downers, and other toxic people in your family. Be pleasant but brief.

6. Take your inner adult with you to visit the family. Even the famous family therapist Murray Bowen wrote in an article called "Going Home" that when he went home to see his parents for the holidays he struggled to keep channeling his inner adult and stay differentiated in a healthy way. There is something about that primordial soup of undifferentiated ego mass that tries to suck you into feeling powerless and 8 years old. Don't go there!

7. Consider making plans to invite people you know who might be alone at the holidays to join you.

8. Show flexibility. If the children aren't with you on Christmas, have some fun making another day Christmas. It's your mood and spirit they will remember, not the date.

9. Take the focus off of buying stuff. Focus instead on experiences and relationships. It's not about stuff, or creating debt for January.

10. Use this holiday season to listen to music that inspires you, develop your spiritual side, and begin envisioning what you would like to create in the new year as we wrap up 2015.

11. Reach out for more healthy support: people who care and are a good influence on you.

12. Avoid alcohol if you are feeling down. Alcohol is a depressant. It will make you feel worse.

Create a holiday season that suits you. Don't give in to the pressure, hype and expectations to do things that no longer work for you. It's time for your own kind of holiday, and you're just the person who can make that happen. The first holiday season following a loss can be difficult. You can choose your response to the loss, and find ways to be kind and gentle to yourself through a challenging holiday season.