'Throw Out the Rulebook' To Get Through Pandemic Holidays, A Therapist Says
RACHEL WILKERSON MILLER, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT, and I'm Rachel Wilkerson Miller. I'm normally over at Vice writing about taking care of yourself and other people. And today, I'm here on LIFE KIT to talk about getting through the holidays.
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MILLER: 'Tis the season to be jolly, or so we're told.
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MILLER: The reality is this time of year is often difficult for a lot of people. And this year, the standard holiday stress and loneliness is compounded by a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. and left millions unemployed. The news right now is grim, with public health experts sending out increasingly dire warnings about our pandemic winter. At a time when most of us desperately need some holiday cheer, we're being asked to make alternative plans that in many instances don't involve the people we love the most and look forward to celebrating with. And a lot of our go-to coping mechanisms are off the table.
ANDREA BONIOR: I think it really is a matter of understanding that this is going to be subpar no matter what, that there's no way to sort of get everything, you know, in a digital format, for instance, that you would get if you were in person. There's no way to not sacrifice certain things. But I do think that the big picture matters so much that we're trying, ultimately, to keep each other safe.
MILLER: That's Dr. Andrea Bonior, a psychologist and the author of "Detox Your Thoughts: Quit Negative Self-Talk For Good And Discover The Life You've Always Wanted." She's going to be our guide this episode. She'll shed light on finding comfort and joy in a dark and uncertain holiday season.
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MILLER: A lot of people are making the safe decision and staying home but are having a hard time being OK with that choice. In general, I think there's a lot of guilt over not seeing aging family members or not letting kids see their grandparents that people are really struggling with. How do you even start to let go of that feeling?
BONIOR: So although we may feel very guilty that people are wanting more from us than we feel comfortable giving, or we have older relatives who say, it's OK, I want the risk, I'm willing to do it, and we're still saying no, we have to bear in mind that, ultimately, if we're following our values, we are really trying to keep them alive and we're trying not to make a one-day decision that cuts short a life or that affects someone for the rest of their life. And so keeping that big picture in mind can really help with the guilt.
MILLER: On the flip side of this, there are people who made the choice to stay put and actually don't feel very guilty about it at all. You know, they feel like they made the right choice. They know why they did it. But they're dealing with family members who are continuing to make them feel bad about it or who are trying to make them feel bad about it or sort of pushing them to change their plans. What should somebody say to people who are pressuring them to travel or guilt-tripping them about not wanting to visit when they actually don't feel very guilty about it?
BONIOR: Yeah, I really recommend having a script that you just return to like a broken record. So, you know, have something clear and firm that says, I really miss you, too. I'm sorry it had to work out this way, but I do feel strongly that this is the best option or the safest option. And then just repeat it as much as you need.
And if it gets to the point where it's just so excessive, you can say, you know, I have to be honest. This really is making me feel uncomfortable. I'm not going to change my mind. And I'm worried that the way that we will spend time together, online or whatever we're doing - I'm worried that that is actually going to now have sort of a negative taste to it because this conflict doesn't seem to be getting resolved.
MILLER: Beyond the pandemic, I think there's just the standard holiday pressure to participate in a certain way, whether that's attending church or spending a ton of money on gifts for nieces and nephews. Are there ways that people can gently assert boundaries with people who think that the holiday rituals have to look a certain way to be valid?
BONIOR: So I think, you know, it is a matter of talking to your family about your feelings and saying, hey, this past year has been really difficult. It's made me prioritize certain things more than I would've in the past. It's put me in a bit of a place where I don't want to do things the same way or I don't feel comfortable spending a ton of money or I've realized it is about more than the gifts this year. What would you think about, you know, doing something lower-key? Or, hey, how about we do, you know, everybody buys one gift that we pick out of a hat for who we're buying for - or whatever it is? And you're allowed to express that. You're allowed to, you know, have that. And they may or may not respond in the way you want, but at least you're being true to yourself and at least giving them a chance to meet you where you are.
MILLER: So one of the sentiments I'm hearing a lot from friends and seeing on social media is anger - anger at people who aren't taking precautions or who are breaking or bending the local rules or at government officials who aren't doing more. What's the best move if you're just feeling overwhelmed by rage this holiday season?
BONIOR: Yeah, rage really shows up in the body, too. You know, and I talk with a lot of clients about this - is that we feel angry, but it's so physical. And I think a lot of times when we don't address the physical part of it, that's when it just stays around and makes us even more miserable.
So get it out. You know, get some dancing in. Get in a primal scream if you can. Do some breathing exercises. You know, go for a long walk outdoors and get some fresh air when it's safe to do so. Really address that physical part. Think about where you carry your anger and where it shows up - a lot of people, it's neck tension and shoulder tension - because if you just try to address the anger in the cognitive way, you're really not going to find relief. It's going to keep coming.
Anger can teach you something, really. You know, if you keep listening to it in a way of, how can I channel this into action, then you can feel a little bit more in control. There are certain things you can't change. You can't change other people's minds necessarily. But if you're constantly frustrated by, you know, the activities of your neighbors, for instance, you can say, OK, this is going to make me double down on what I do, or this is going to make me give to a certain organization that I know is fighting the same fight that I want to be fighting. And so channeling that anger into action is really the best way to turn it into something that matters and that can make things better.
MILLER: I think a lot of times, the anger hits close to home, too. It's not just strangers on the Internet you're upset with, but your own friends or your family members. In those instances, is it best to confront them in some way or to tell them you're upset with them, or should you just kind of, you know, do your primal scream and let it go?
BONIOR: It is about being realistic and knowing the limitations of the people that we're working with and living with and loving and giving it a try, but also recognizing that when you've given it a try and it hasn't worked multiple times, unfortunately, that probably means you're best off managing your own reaction to it more so than anything else.
MILLER: I also think there's a lot of sadness and disappointment this year with how people are handling the pandemic, along with conversations about systemic racism and inequality. So I think a lot of people are wondering how to cope with the fact that their family's behavior, and their holiday plans in particular, might be changing their view of them, and they're kind of forced to rethink their relationship with their family or things they believed about them for their entire lives.
BONIOR: This is so hard, being disappointed in people that we love and realizing that they may fall short or they may not share the values that we think are central to how we define ourselves. And there's no easy way to get through it except to realize that no one person in our lives, not even a partner, needs to be exactly who fits with us in every single way.
And so when it's someone from your family of origin and it's someone you can still choose to love dearly for your history, but it's OK to also recognize that there are ways that they disappoint you and that you can talk to them about differing views and opinions, and you can try to change their mind about things that are important to you, but ultimately, they may be seeing the world through a totally different lens. You might not be able to change that lens. And so you can choose to accept them in your lives for what they do bring, with limitations. Or, you know, in some cases, it does lead to estrangement. It really is a very personal decision. But I think it's kind of part of growing up in certain ways, recognizing that people that we really put on a pedestal - in some ways, maybe they fall short.
MILLER: Loneliness and isolation at the holidays is a difficult thing to cope with even in the best of years. But a lot of people are feeling it even more this year, especially when they can't gather with their chosen family or their found family, wherever they are. Do you have any tips for coping with the holiday season when you just feel a lot of despair and you're feeling really, really alone?
BONIOR: So I think the first step is to throw out the rulebook. Really, so many expectations we have can make us feel worse. And then it's like we don't just feel miserable, but we feel miserable about the fact that we feel miserable. If you don't want to decorate your house for the holidays, even though you always do, think about getting rid of that expectation. Of course, if you live with people who expect it or want to do it, then that's a conversation to have.
Second, really think about ways to manage that isolation in ways that have felt good. I mean, by now, we're so far into having been, you know, somewhat locked down in our homes that you might have a good idea of maybe what worked and what didn't. So, you know, if you're not up for the Zoom happy hour, fine. Don't do it. Don't force yourself to. But maybe you had an old-fashioned, you know, phone call, just voice-to-voice with your sister a couple months ago that, now that you think about it, it really did improve your mood.
And then, finally, you know, really, a lot of people do get a lot of help from thinking about the bigger picture of helping others. And it is true that we really do get a mood boost when we help other people. So thinking about even small things - you know, I'm going to write a couple of thank-you notes to people that have been in my life but I've lost touch with and just tell them how much they mean to me. So if all else fails, really thinking about just a random act of kindness, as cliched as that might be, that can tide you over for quite a bit.
MILLER: One thing I'm thinking about this year is how to focus on what is being added versus what is being lost. For people who are losing a lot this year and who are really sad about not being able to be with family or even friends, what are some ways to add meaning and maybe even a little bit of holiday magic to what is probably going to be a fairly rough holiday season? Like, how can you celebrate or create new rituals that feel special?
BONIOR: Yeah. The first step, I think, is to really think outside the box, especially if you have kids. You know, I've worked with a lot of people who say - and I'm a mom myself - like, oh, no, but we have to do things this way 'cause the kids really - they rely on it, and they're going to be devastated. And it's like, as it turns out, if you introduce some bizarre, new, fun, silly thing to do, they're like, oh, yeah, let's do that instead, you know, 'cause we can't do the other thing this year. And that's great. And they get excited. So really think outside the box - you know, something fun, something silly, something you've never done before, something that throws out the old tradition, even temporarily.
And think about the fact that this can actually get you a little bit more connected to what really matters. This is an opportunity to reevaluate, reevaluate and recalibrate what is going to be important to you going forward. And, you know, a lot of people who lose loved ones go through that process, too. It's like, oh, my goodness, when everything feels like it's been burned to the ground, there's a lot of loss there and there's a lot of grief and sadness, but there's also an opportunity for me to choose on my own terms how I rebuild and how I go forward. And that is a really special freedom, when you think about it.
MILLER: I think that's really good advice for this year in general, when loss has been, I think, ultimately the biggest shared experience that we've all had - the loss of a way of life, the loss of people we care about, the loss of businesses, maybe, we loved - that it is an opportunity to rebuild. But I think it can also be hard to figure out how, or you're feeling like it has to be perfect because I have to get it right. And so it's a lot of pressure. Is there anything else on this topic that you want to add, any sort of parting thoughts for the listener heading into this holiday season?
BONIOR: I would say really to think about the fact that you are not alone, and especially, you know, if you need to reach out for something more. There was some interesting data that came out recently that said that people are actually less likely to reach out for help during the pandemic - mental health help - despite them being more stressed and feeling worse than ever. And I think part of that is that people are comparing themselves to others. They're saying, I don't have the right to get help, or what's my deal? Somebody else has it much worse, or everybody's going through this tough stuff. There's nothing unique about me, you know? So I always say, don't use that comparison yardstick, right? Don't compare yourself to other people. If you need help, then you are deserving of help, period, full stop.
Honestly, there are a lot of ways that therapists can reach people now that they weren't able to before because we've had to be forced to figure out how to go virtual. And so there's some benefits in terms of the increased accessibility of services. So please consider taking advantage of it if you need it.
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MILLER: That's Dr. Andrea Bonior, psychologist and author of "Detox Your Thoughts: Quit Negative Self-Talk For Good And Discover The Life You've Always Wanted."
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MILLER: So let's recap. If you're not traveling this year or if the holidays look a little different, remember the big picture. Staying home is an act of love intended to keep your loved ones and community safe.
If you're dealing with pushy family members who are guilt-tripping you about a holiday visit, prepare a script with what you'll say and just repeat it as much as you need to.
Give yourself permission to have a more low-key holiday season and let go of your expectations. If you're celebrating with friends and family, ask if they'd be willing to opt out of the usual gift-giving frenzy. And if you're not up for a Zoom happy hour or virtual caroling, it's OK to politely decline.
It can be hard seeing others traveling around or disregarding CDC warnings. If you're feeling angry, Andrea recommends moving your body or finding another way to address the physical aspect of anger first. Then take action. Donate time or money to an organization you care about.
Remember that you're not alone. Try not to compare yourself to others during this difficult time, and know that everyone is deserving of help and support, so reach out to others if you're feeling down.
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MILLER: For more episodes of LIFE KIT, go to npr.org/lifekit. We have episodes on all sorts of topics from how to start therapy remotely to how to support your friends through a hard time. If you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.
This episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. Meghan Keane is the managing producer, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Rachel Wilkerson Miller. Thanks for listening.
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