Why is it so difficult for some of us?

As the stores fill with shoppers during this season, so do the therapists’ offices. During a time when emotions are supposed to be “merry and bright,” people sometimes feel mad or bummed. Why are there often negative emotions surrounding the holidays?

One answer to this question is unmet expectations. It might be a material expectation, such as that gift you’ve been asking for since July. Memories of past disappointments lead to thoughts that the same thing will happen again. For people whose love language is Receiving Gifts, such experiences can lead to the perception of being unloved. Another unmet expectation could be a personal longing, such as being with loved ones with whom you will not see this year (cue in Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You”). The holiday season seems ripe for spiritual or emotional expectations, but perhaps they never seem to come to fruition.

Another reason the holidays drag people down is that their traditions have changed. Dealing with changes is commonly difficult for humans. We are, by nature, creatures of habit. We long for continuity. Just as the sun rises every morning (even though we can’t always see it in West Michigan!), we count on having certain experiences. By reproducing the same sights, sounds, tastes, and smells each year, the scene is set for holiday traditions. But what happens when those places are no longer available? Perhaps a loved one has passed away in the past year, or a divorce has occurred. We not only have to grieve the loss of that person or relationship, we also may need to allow ourselves to grieve the loss of our traditions.

There are still others for whom past traditions do not hold good memories. These people truly have a case of Bah-humbug Syndrome (a term I just coined). Remember Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghost of Christmas past? (If you have never read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, you can check it out here.) They revisited his school at Christmas where he spent many of his childhood holidays lonely and abandoned. Like Scrooge, perhaps Christmas is a time of triggers, being reminded of negative experiences. It makes complete sense that “Bah, humbug!” would be the only response to the season.

If you are someone who struggles with Bah-humbug Syndrome, allow yourself to sit in the dissonance of a heavy heart in the season of lights. And after sitting for a while, stand up. Find ways to help you sort through your emotions, to come to grips with your unmet expectations, to experience the stages of grief, and to learn to feel safe in the aftermath of adverse events. That could mean calling a friend, taking a bath, revisiting deeper values of your life—or calling a therapist. There is hope for a day when you, like Ebenezer Scrooge, can be more enthused about Christmas and experience joy, hope and peace.

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