For most people, this time of year is filled with excitement, fun, family, food and drink, celebration, and joy. However, for many of us, this time of year brings its own unique challenges - dealing with depression, financial struggles, grief, substance or food addiction, abuse, difficult family situations, the list goes on and on.
If you do a web search for "Mental Health and the holidays" you will find an abundance of lists of things to do to get through the holidays. So ... I'm not going to do that here.
My goal for this post is how to be aware and relate to loved ones around you who may be struggling. One of my favorite quotes is, "Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." (The source of the quote is unclear ... everyone from Plato to J.M. Barrie to John Watson). Anyway, whether the quote is exactly referenced or not, it holds great truth. Here are some tips for interacting in ways that are "kinder than necessary."
1. ALLOW OTHERS TO HAVE THEIR FEELINGS
When those around us are dealing with heavy emotions, it is uncomfortable to say the least. The easiest way for us to deal with this discomfort is to expect them to fix it - so we (in our most well-meaning voice) tell them, "You know Daddy wouldn't want you to be sad today" or "Just pull it together while the family is here" or "There's no need to be anxious - you know no one wants to hurt you."
Feelings are not good or bad, right or wrong - they just are. Telling someone to turn them off communicates that their feelings are bad, wrong, unacceptable - which also communicates that the person is bad, wrong, and unacceptable. Instead of trying to get your loved one to turn off the feelings that make you uncomfortable, try some of these instead:
"Having all of these people in the house must be hard for you."
"I really miss mom, too."
" It must be hard to go through the holidays sober when everyone around you is drinking."
"I can tell you are feeling really down today."
A Native American proverb says, "Never criticize a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins." Empathy asks us to go a step further - to imagine what it would be like in those moccasins, to hold hands with that person and the world from his or her perspective - see what they see, understand what they face, understand what they feel.
3. BE A SUPPORT
If you truly empathize (Step 2), Advocacy will be a natural next step. If you really understand what it is like to face your first holiday sober, you will be more sensitive to accommodating those feelings and experiences in planning your holiday gathering. If you truly understand the grief your loved one is carrying, you will be more sensitive to the way you reference the person they are grieving, and more accepting when grief feelings do arise. Just be there - be an accepting, non-judgmental shoulder they can lean on, a listening ear.
4. BE AN ADVOCATE
Those of us with mental health struggles are VERY AWARE that we don't work like everyone else - that our feelings are bigger, our reactions are bigger, that things are issues for us that other people never think twice about. Often we feel that we are "too much" and "not enough" all at the same time. Take your support (from Step 3) one step further. In my mind, being a support looks like being a safe base for your loved one around others; being an advocate looks like making the entire environment as safe as possible for your loved one. Be the one who also goes without the eggnog this year. Be the one who says that another's verbal negativity toward your loved one is not okay.
Notice I didn't title this "4 easy steps" or "simple tips" - they are not simple. In fact, for some of us they are extremely challenging. The only thing that would motivate you to do these is your love for the other person. You may not get a thank you; your loved one may not do any "better" at getting through the holidays. But, you might - they might. Mental health struggles are real, and if you have never experienced it, or taken the time to explore what it may be like, you can not understand. But, you can be a support, a friend, an advocate - ONE WHO LOVES.
My hope for you this holiday season is health, love, kindness, and peace. Accept and honor your own journey, struggles, sunshine and clouds, and accept and honor the journey of those around you.