Christmas Hallmark movie

Life isn’t a Hallmark Christmas movie — Be good to yourselves this holiday season

“Every print ad, every TV commercial, every carefully curated Instagram story or Facebook post, every Hallmark Christmas movie makes us expect too much. It’s a bottomless pit and a vicious circle and it’s oh so dangerous for our mental health.”

The song may claim that it’s the “most wonderful time of the year,” but, truth is, the holidays can be tricky for so many of us. It’s supposed to be this joyous, full-of-abundance, full-of-family-and-friends time of year that’s meant to show us the real meaning of life and fill us with gratitude and love and optimism. And it can be those things. But it can also be a lonely, anxiety-inducing and deeply disappointing time, full of overwhelming sadness and impossible-to-meet expectations that only manages to make people already feeling fragile and teetering on the brink of an emotional breakdown spiral even deeper into a dark place. 

I’ve said this before, and I’ll continue to keep saying it: the discrepancy and disconnect between what we have been socialized to expect from the holidays and what we end up experiencing during the season is what often sabotages us, creating feelings of dejection, bitterness and loneliness.

Life isn’t a Hallmark Christmas movie

We expect too much. A society that promotes and often prioritizes rabid consumerism creates outsized expectations. Every print ad, every TV commercial, every carefully curated Instagram story or Facebook post, every Hallmark Christmas movie makes us expect too much. It’s a bottomless pit and a vicious circle and it’s oh so dangerous for our mental health. This constant race to perfection doesn’t let us breathe and slow down enough to simply enjoy our time off from work, or the friends and family we want to spend time with. 

Between cleaning the house for guests, frantic and last-minute Christmas gift shopping and preparing for a big family meal (most tasks often and still primarily falling on women), when does one rest and recoup? When does one take a moment to just breathe? When does one focus on gratitude when everything around us serves to remind us of what and who we might be missing or how we might be falling short? How does one enjoy and appreciate and celebrate on this forced and designated time, regardless of whether we have it in us or not? 

Holidays can be a brutal time of year for those going through loss or accompanying a loved one through a life-threatening illness. Seeing images of happy families around the table can be triggering for those who don’t have good relationships with their family members. Watching happy family scenes unfold around us while we’re mourning the loss of a parent or a sibling or — even worse — of a child feels almost obscene when our pain is still so raw. How does the world keep turning when everything has stopped for us? How are people allowed to laugh and love when there’s a giant hole in our heart and in our lives? Having at one point experienced the loss of a parent close to the holidays, I know how rough those ‘firsts’ are and how much space your loved ones’ absence takes up. 

Pandemic fatigue still present 

And then there’s pandemic fatigue. I don’t know if it’s only my perception, but I feel like I’m seeing far more sadness, apathy and depression around me these days. It’s now Year 3 of this pandemic and while it’s less of a factor than it was over the past few holidays, depending on your and your family’s vulnerability, it’s still very much a factor. People are still hospitalized and still dying daily. With most governments no longer interested in taking the lead on mitigating measures, it’s left to individuals to decide on their behaviour.

Three years in, most people no longer have the energy to stay at home and abstain from socializing. So, they’re going out, attending parties and gatherings, often no longer masking. They’re hugging and kissing family and friends again. Many feel left behind, still playing it safe while others have moved on. We’re in this grey area (one foot in the pandemic, one foot out) that’s left many people confused, deflated, worried and just plain exhausted.  

I can feel the weight of existential angst and emotional depletion around me this year. Many have been putting on a good front for the past few years. They rolled up their sleeves and kept on doing what needed to be done. But they’re now finding themselves running on empty, with no energy left for unexpected emergencies and challenges. They’re emotionally tapped out.  

Be patient with yourself 

We all have our own ways of tackling mental and physical exhaustion. But I think the first step in handling these holiday blues is acknowledging they exist and being kind to ourselves. You don’t have to be cheery and social all the time if you don’t have it in you to be. You don’t have to be perfect and run yourself ragged to create a show-stopping holiday dinner, buy the perfect present, act like the perfect host or the perfect guest. It’s okay to say no.

Get enough sleep and take some time for yourself, whether it’s going to a quiet café to read a book or take a solitary walk. Volunteer at a food bank. Limit time with problematic family members or friends who trigger negative feelings and anxiety. Know your limits and have an exit plan. You don’t always have to be ‘on.’ You’re not a dancing monkey, they don’t expect you to perform. There’s nothing more emotionally taxing than faking it and shoving all these feelings deep down. Allow yourself to feel all that you’re feeling, whether it’s fatigue, sadness, anger, disillusionment or overwhelming grief for someone you miss. Merriment on demand is pure misery.  

Gratitude and self-awareness help

I know it’s a cliché, but focusing on what you have and being grateful for the good things in your life can go a long way towards brightening your mood. We all have people in our lives who love us and who are rooting for us. Appreciate them and be thankful they exist. It’s okay to be down, but don’t indulge those feelings for too long. Sometimes it’s necessary to remind ourselves that, despite the bad hand dealt, despite the losses, despite the less than stellar year, another one is just around the corner and more awaits us. Odds are good that a lot of what’s coming will be wonderful. 

Most of all, stop holding so tightly to a script someone else told you that you had to follow. Let go. I’m not quite sure who said, “Normal is a setting on a washing machine,” but, silly as it is, I think it’s a valuable reminder that prevents us from falling into that dangerous trap. There’s no “normal.” Everyone’s family is various degrees of dysfunctional in different ways. Stop the comparison game. 

The need to check items off a list before we can allow ourselves to feel “happy” or “successful” or “accomplished” or “worthy” is, in my humble opinion, one of the worst contributors to people’s unhappiness and feelings of crippling anxiety and sadness. 

Define and create your own normal. Celebrate that. Happy holidays to you and your loved ones. ■

To read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis, please click here.