Is your heart struggling this season?
From Halloween on, there is a steady flow of holidays, as we move from Thanksgiving to Christmas to the New Year. It can feel like a whirl wind of activity, commitments, and emotions. While the fun and excitement boost us for a while, the holidays can also bring an overwhelming sense of our limits, lack of holiday cheer, absence of simple joy, or even painful memories and losses. Many people feel a sense of dread or worry going into the holidays with a fear (whether big or small, spoken or unspoken) of how the holidays will really hit them.
Maybe a loss this year has your heart grieving. Perhaps you are struggling with health issues that have you feeling worn and weary. It might be that your personality feels easily overwhelmed. Or maybe your heart just feeds on the excitement, but you can’t find focus. No matter the struggle of your heart, I want you to know you are understood. I’d like to share some practical tips to prepare your heart for the holidays, even when it hurts.
Pressures of the Season
I have always loved Christmas, holidays, and celebrations. Our family always enjoyed the holiday season and time spent together. Some of my greatest memories are steeped with holiday traditions and fun ways to celebrate the special times of year. These were always happy times together as a family. I have to admit though, that as an adult, the holidays bring a whole lot more to the table. There is some pressure to balance the holiday preparations and activities as well as the usual every day commitments and obligations.
There is also the awareness that not every family enjoys times spent together and that no matter what you hoped and dreamed of, some families are overcome by tensions and strained relationships. We may be dreading the holidays after painful losses or difficult memories of holidays from the past. And even though we’d like to think that holiday cheer is magical or spectacular, we may instead struggle with how to find some focus and perspective during the holiday season, especially when life feels hard or we are hurting.
Some may be celebrating the holidays while also juggling the strain or stress of one or more of the following:
- Moving or being away from family
- Loss of a loved one
- Divorce or separation
- Strained relationships of extended family
- Failing health of loved one
- Painful memories of holidays
- Struggling with physical health
- Experiencing anxiety, depression, or mental health issue
- Loss of a job or financial stresses
- Chronic health issues
There are numerous reasons we may find ourselves struggling during the holiday seasons, these are just a few. So, we may find ourselves feeling lonely, hurt, overwhelmed, inadequate, angry, anxious, helpless, hopeless, fearful, abandoned, discouraged, and maybe even devastated. These feelings feel even more stark against the back drop of the holiday cheer surrounding us, causing us to feel as though we just aren’t enough…not good enough…not rich enough…not happy enough…not busy enough…not healthy enough…not grateful enough, not…well, you get the picture…not enough.
I remember a time like this in my life, okay, maybe more than once!! One particular year came as I struggled through a very difficult journey of depression and anxiety. From early in the season, okay, the day after Halloween, I was reminded at every corner of the holiday preparations that needed to be taking place. There were decorations that needed to be hung up, a tree that needed put up, parties and activities for which I needed to sign up, presents that needed to be picked up (oh yeah, first I had to buy them!) and I simply felt worked up! I couldn’t have felt less equipped for pulling off a holiday for myself, let alone a family with seven children. I felt like there was a neon blinking sign on my forehead that informed anyone near that I was NOT ENOUGH. No part of me felt that I could function, and I was trying to pull off what felt impossible. But as hard as that holiday season was, I learned a lot. And this is what I want to share with you today.
Preparing out hearts for the holiday is truly key. You see, the holidays are not about tasks and activities, though it would be easy to get side tracked by them. The holidays are not about peace and cheer, because quite frankly, that can be a big bill to fill in this world. It might be easy to think that holidays are about the fun and togetherness, but we can’t hang our hat on that either. Why? Because when we set our expectations on something that is out of our control, we can be easily discouraged.
I learned that I had to figure out what really mattered to me in the holidays. I thought about what was priority. Yes, in an ideal world, all would revolve around love, cheer, and fun. But I knew that we would be put in situations where we would be left out, worn out, put out, tired out, and wiped out! And somehow in the midst of that, I wanted to still find joy in the season. Finding joy is a practice. Happiness comes and goes, but joy remains. Cheer is steeped in holiday celebrations, but joy goes beyond.
I remember being a little girl learning to cross stitch. One Christmas I stitched a little picture for my aunt that said JOY as an acrostic. The words that made up the word JOY were Jesus, Others, and You. She hung this little decoration in her room right next to her closet for many years. In the last 17 years, I have watched this same aunt lose two children, just four months apart in car accidents. And then within the last few years lose both her Dad and Mom. I can only imagine how hard the holidays feel for her. I am sure there were many that were unimaginably difficult, as were the every days. But I have watched her live with joy, despite the horrible pain and losses she has experienced. I can’t help but notice that she has continued to keep these three key parts of life in place.
As we approach the holidays, maybe we can imagine JOY in a new sense. Maybe we can focus on a feeling of love, gratitude, and hope that comes not because of something we do or don’t do, or even something that we are or aren’t. But a joy that comes from focus and perspective on Jesus, others, and then our self.
How can we prepare our heart for the holidays, even when it hurts?
Keeping our thoughts on track, seeing the blessings that we have been given, and looking for ways to express gratitude for what we do have or can do is much healthier than getting lost in our challenges or struggles. It is good to acknowledge our trials, or even extend grace for where we are at in the journey, but it is not helpful to get stuck or trapped there. Healthy thinking leads to better physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Healthy thinking involves learning how to control our thoughts and perspectives and understanding the power our thoughts can have on our overall health and relationships.
Example: Every year, around this time, I start feeling very overwhelmed with all the programs, activities, parties, craft days, etc. that take place in a family of nine. I start hearing my self-talk, and it begins to sound a little like this: “Oh man, I should do more. People will think I’m not a good mom if I don’t do something better. What if I’m just not a very good Mom? So-and so is going to…” And from there it can be a slippery slope down the I’m not good enough path, comparison, path, and nowhere good! Please tell me I’m not the only one struggling with this?! From the start, I have to get a hold of my thoughts and self-talk. “What is it I would like to or am able to contribute this year? I will do what I can, and I am so glad that we are all gifted differently so that what I can’t do…someone surely can!”
Examining our expectations—
Often, we go into situations expecting something of ourselves and feeling like we failed if we don’t live up to that. Likewise, we can go into situations where we expect others to respond a particular way, say certain things, or do what we would do. When they don’t live up to that, we find ourselves feeling let down, offended, or hurt. The truth is, we can’t control others, only ourselves. In fact, I remember hearing someone say once that expectations are a sure way to set ourselves up for disappointment. So it can be helpful to examine what you expect of yourself and other through this holiday season and where you might have some unrealistic expectations. Make a practice of extending grace to yourself and to others.
Example: Realizing that you are struggling through grief this holiday, you may decide to attend fewer get togethers than normal, knowing that you feel more emotional and need a break from being around a lot of people yet. You also realize that others don’t always know how to respond to your grief. In not knowing how to handle grief, people will fail. They will say something that doesn’t feel good, or come out right, or just doesn’t feel understanding. If you expect that might possibly happen and understand that it is not ill intentions, then when it happens, you find it easier to extend that grace.
Adjusting our approach—
It seems as though holidays can come with a hidden list of expectations that relate to decorating, eating, hosting, etc. Those can be daunting, since everyone is gifted differently and might enjoy a whole different part of the holiday season. It is key to decide what your holiday might look like. What does your family desire from the holidays? What do you want the holiday season to look like, feel like, or entail? Brainstorm, discuss, and plan. If you didn’t see last week’s blog article, you might check it out. It has a handy planner and list of ideas for you to use. (Visit this link to get this free resource and other helpful tips and cheat sheets.) Adjusting your approach means taking time to plan your holiday season and then working within that. That doesn’t mean there is no time or ability for spontaneity, but rather that you aren’t exhausting yourselves doing things that don’t matter just to fill an already full schedule!
Example: We have a little one that struggles with transitions, too many activities, and too many people. He needs some down time to refresh and refuel or his meltdowns increase and his tolerance decreases. We consciously keep that in mind as we make plans over the holidays. It’s unfair to him (and to the family as a whole) to run him on overwhelmed and overstimulated and expect him to function well without falling apart. We have to purposely plan some low-key activities at home that he can be a part of choosing to make things work more smoothly for the whole family. Likewise, when I was struggling with the anxiety and depression, my level of activity was greatly impacted. We had to decide where to invest our energy that year and how to minimize some of the extras to focus on what really mattered and was manageable. And then of course, I had to remind myself to ditch the guilt, as it was just a year where adjusting our approach was necessary.
Realize the true reason for the season—
The commercial aspect of the holidays, Santa, and receiving presents can often feel center stage. It becomes quite easy as you walk around town with little ones this time of year that getting gifts is a highlight for many! Everywhere you go, people ask what Santa will be bringing them or something that indicates they should be getting something specific they want. It takes some planned effort to keep Christ in Christmas.It is key to remember the true reason for the season and that we use this opportunity to enjoy the one true gift that changed the destiny of mankind. Click To Tweet
I encourage you to find those small traditions or random acts of kindness that help bring this front and center for your family. And then share that gift with others. Some people have limited experience focusing Christmas on Jesus and His coming to Earth as a baby in a stable and becoming the king that would one day die for our sins. Taking time as a family to plan how you will bless others, serve others, and share the true joy with others this holiday season is well worth the time. Don’t waste this perfect opportunity that comes each year to spread the true joy and cheer.
Example: You might enjoy a Christmas devotional, advent wreath and book, reading one chapter in the book of Luke each day of December, etc. Maybe you find some purposeful ways to pay it forward and offer your time to serve as a family or give to someone in need. Our family has enjoyed getting gift tags off a tree for children in need or packing the shoe boxes with toys and gifts that will be shipped as part of Operation Christmas Child. This is a great way to involve even young children in the process of giving and serving. My husband and I went one year to the Operation Christmas Child warehouse and helped package gifts. It was a unique and special opportunity. I would encourage you to take older children some time to experience it as well. This is a perfect opportunity to live out our faith and share with others the true reason we celebrate the holiday season. The traditions list from last week’s blog and the random acts of kindness list at the link below might be a great way to get your brainstorming going. There are some great ideas for serving and giving on the free downloadable lists at the following link, as well as many other free resources.
Take time for healthy self-care—
Preparing your heart for the holidays is a process. It involves many different aspects that each contribute to our physical, mental, and spiritual health. Taking care of yourself is not selfish. It is an important part of keeping yourself healthy and able to give to others. Someone running on exhausted or overwhelmed doesn’t have much to offer others. Healthy self care allows us to slow down, gain insight, and proceed with a plan that is effective and useful. Taking care of ourselves is important no matter where we are in life, but is absolutely essential when we are taking care of hurting hearts.
No matter what is causing your hurt, it will take some time and effort to help your healing and recovery. Be patient with yourself and don’t expect too much. Appreciate the small steps you take in getting better and look for those little blessings. The holidays can wipe us out when we come to the game feeling healthy and happy. So, give yourself lots of grace for navigating the holiday season with stress, strain, and struggles. Find those things that help you feel refreshed, refocused, and ready for the next day. Then make time for those things. Need some encouragement for self-care? Check out this free resource from a past article on self-care.
Example: During some of my difficult adult holidays, I have had to make extra time to be read the Bible, jot down verses of encouragement, and listen to praise and worship music (It’s hard to nag, fret, and fuss with praise worship in the background!). I have had to make time to connect with friends for heart-to-heart discussions, indulged with hot baths, nested in a cozy blanket, scheduled some friend time to shop, and even scheduled some extra naps and cappuccino dates! I’ve had to understand which holiday gatherings might be increasing my anxiety and figure out how I might manage my worries or adjust my schedule to increase my ability to handle the situation better. I’ve learned both a healthy understanding of my limits and where I can practice infusing some extra grace. They both can be helpful!For those whose life feels complicated, may you know that with God all things are possible. Click To Tweet
Feeling the Holidays
Holidays can be great. Holidays can be fun. And truth is, holidays don’t always feel great or fun! I understand that many people struggle through holidays and for a host of different reasons. I hope that this holiday season you will feel the love and care of God, His hand upon your life, His presence even amidst life’s struggles and hurts. I pray that despite the circumstances of the situation that you will be able to experience some joy. For those that are hurting from grief and loss, I pray that His healing hand can touch your heart with comfort. For those who are lonely, I pray that you will know His presence and constant care. For those whose life feels complicated, may you know that with God all things are possible. And may each of you be reminded that He will never leave you or forsake you. God loved you enough to send His only Son who would one day give His life for you.
Our real joy comes when we put ourselves in His presence. When we do this on a daily basis, He becomes a support, friend, and help to us. And when we practice seeing the good things He is doing for us, we can’t help but feel His love. God is big enough to handle all the things that make us feel like we are not enough. God can handle our worries, our cares, our anger, our sadness, our loneliness. He can handle it all. Nothing is too big for him.
May your heart be touched with joy and the true “presence” of God.
P.S. If you haven’t read The Christmas Story—Through the Eyes of Mary, check it out here. Talk about adjusting expectations… WOW! Imagine being an unwed mother of that time with no apparent spouse, traveling to Bethlehem big and pregnant on a donkey, and then giving birth in a stable of all places!! Think Mary had some expectations to adjust?! Check out the story here, on this past blog article!
And if you didn’t catch last weeks article on Taking the Chaos Out of Christmas, you just might want to read it too! It can give you three keys to making your holiday one of focus and joy!