The holidays can be a wonderful and cozy time of year. We reconnect with those long forgotten warm sweaters that have waited patiently for us in the back of our closets. Everything we eat and drink is pumpkin flavored. We start to look longingly at our fireplaces, and even anticipate the first snowfall. But for many people, the shift out of daylight savings and other harbingers of fall and winter create feelings of anxiety, loneliness, anger, and depression. Many therapists report an upswing in referrals this time of year, and the focus is often on the difficult feelings that colder weather, less sunshine, and the approaching holiday season evokes.
It’s not unusual for a chill in the air to cause people to turn inward, disconnecting a bit from others. But for the millions of people who grew up in a toxic or dysfunctional family, there’s a much stronger disconnection, and a deep sense of dread and “obligation,” about attending meals, religious ceremonies, and celebrations with relatives. Often, these are emotional triggers for earlier memories tainted by parents fighting, out of control drinking, financial stress, cynicism, and intergenerational grudges. These traumatic experiences create painful associations with the holiday season, and can become even more overwhelming, alienating, and confusing when the rest of the world seems to be operating from joy and good cheer. Anxiety and depression can be increased even more when teenagers and adults don’t know how to process or resolve these painful memories and experiences. One powerful byproduct of not having effective coping tools is to turn to self-destructive behaviors.
It seems like a contradiction to say that people deliberately engage in behaviors that cause physical, emotional, and psychological pain and distress because they are trying to feel better! Yet the reality is eating disorders, addictions, and acts of self-mutilation are attempts to self-soothe, numb out upsetting feelings, and distract away from painful, overwhelming memories. When you add the fact that it’s socially acceptable to eat and drink to excess during the holidays, it makes turning to and abusing these substances even easier. And the tricky part is, in the short-term, these unhealthy coping strategies seem to work! They do grant some relief, numbing, and distraction. Of course, in the long-term, these behaviors create feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety and fear that loved ones will be angry at them, and personal feelings of helplessness and disappointment as people vow to give up these behaviors, only to turn to them again when triggered and overwhelmed.
Do you ever wonder why people who have histories of trauma and pain seem willing, even eager, to engage in behaviors that are punitive, self-sabotaging or destructive? The answer is simple but poignant; when they hate themselves it resonates to hurt themselves. When they grow up with trauma, abuse or neglect — all year round and not just during the holidays — they can be left with a pervasive sense of guilt, shame, harsh inner criticism, or self-loathing. If they walk around with these feelings, self-destructive choices actually seem to “make sense” to them. Why would they want to make healthy, growth-producing choices if somewhere inside they don’t believe they are worthy of self-care?
The truth is, it’s impossible to give up destructive patterns or toxic behaviors until painful life experiences can be viewed through a lens of self-compassion and empathy. Oftentimes, the meaning that gets attached to trauma holds more power than the experiences themselves. Here are some examples of thoughts that might keep a person stuck in patterns of self-blame and shame:
• What happened was my fault
• I should have stopped it or prevented it from happening
• My pain is evidence that I am damaged or broken
• This happened because I am unlovable
• I will always be alone
• I ruined the holidays for my family because I didn’t keep my abuse a secret
When people believe these thoughts are true, it resonates to keep behaving in ways that perpetuate guilt, shame, and feelings of worthlessness. Bringing compassion into the equation is often the first step towards healing and being able to let go of destructive behaviors. As self-compassion is practiced, they will begin to choose relationships that are supportive and safe, care for and protect their bodies, and work in an environment that values and appreciates their contributions.
They can even choose to experience the joy of the holiday season with surrogate family members who are truly safe and loving.
Notice the difference in thoughts when trauma is viewed through the lens of self-compassion:
• It wasn’t my fault that someone else chose to hurt me
• Something bad was done to me- I am not bad.
• My pain is legitimate and is the inevitable byproduct of being hurt
• I have the power and the right to reach out for comfort, support, and guidance, so I am no longer alone.
When a person finds it difficult to think about their experiences in this more loving way, I encourage them to try to think about someone in their life who genuinely cares about them; a person or even a pet! Think about the messages they would give and then slowly incorporate that perspective into their own thought process. If embracing a whole new mindset is hard, we explore just starting with, “Maybe it’s possible that it wasn’t my fault.” Even considering the possibility of letting go of self-blame softens the shame and creates an opening for self-love and true healing. Seeking professional support and guidance as well as the encouragement of loved ones is a way to create new associations and positive memories, which can be the first step towards feeling joy during the holiday season and all year long!
Lisa Ferentz is a clinical social worker and psychotherapist who has been in private practice for 30 years, specializing in adolescent and adult survivors of trauma, abuse and neglect. Ferentz is Founder and President of The Institute for Advanced Psychotherapy Training and Education, Inc., an organization providing continuing education classes and Certificates in Advanced Trauma Treatment to mental health professionals and author of Letting Go of Self-Destructive Behaviors: A Workbook of Hope and Healing, as well as Treating Self-Destructive Behaviors in Trauma Survivors: A Clinician’s Guide, now in its second edition. To learn more, visit www.lisaferentz.com.