Working through Joy and Sadness during the Holiday Season, By Jonathan Steele, MFTI
We are in the thick of the Holiday season, with reminders of family all around us. There’s been a new addition in our family, a beautiful baby girl, who has stolen my heart! This will be her first Christmas and with each new expression of joy over our Christmas lights, I remember such a child-like joy during this year. But as I cradle her in my arms, I recall those who are not present to experience our baby girl. It’s been two holiday seasons without two important people in my life, my paternal grandma and maternal papa. I’m struck with sadness, which goes against the grain of the cheerful holiday season. I question myself, “How can such a sadness exist when thinking about such a bundle of joy?” I believe that speaks to the complexity of our emotions. We have the ability to feel two or more opposing emotions at the same time, in this case joy and sadness. During this holiday season, a healthy response to the complexity of emotions is to acknowledge current emotions and find ways to express them.
I believe there are so many memories to the Holiday season, some joyful, sad, happy, painful, hopeful, regretful. I was struck with such a stark reminder of my grandma when driving through the streets of Coronado, heading towards the Hotel Del all lit up in its Christmas wonder. I told my wife, “This was one of grandma’s favorite places to go, one of her favorite times of the year, to see the Hotel Del during Christmas.” At that moment I was filled with sadness. I realized she would not be present to enjoy the expressions of our baby girl’s first holiday season. Then, I was flooded with memories, each contained a mix of emotions. From the first time taking me over the bridge of Coronado, to playing Bridge with her, to taking pictures in front of the huge Christmas tree at the Hotel Del, to her visiting our house for her last holiday season, to sitting at her bedside the day before she died. The whirlwind of memories and emotions happened so fast, that I could barely recognize the heaviness in my heart, the change in my demeanor, from a smile to frown. I believe its vital to be present for each emotion of the holiday season. From the stress of shopping to the happiness of seeing a family/friend you’ve missed. From the joy of ice skating overlooking the beach (of course that’s behind the Hotel Del in Coronado) to the deep sadness of the death of someone close. These emotions represent the full experience of the holidays, despite the contrast presented by the constant cheerful music and lights.
How is it you acknowledge emotions during this holiday season? I find acknowledgment through relational openness and individual reflection. Relational openness is when you allow a trusted individual to be that blind spotter in your life, especially in regards to recognizing difficult emotions. For me, my wife is that person. She recognizes the moments I’m less interested, less present, less excited, sad or depressed and communicates to me what she observes.
Personal reflection is another helpful tool to acknowledge emotions. I find for myself I need to carve out moments without distraction and do a physical check of emotions. A list of emotions, like the emotion wheel, can help identify feelings that are difficult to share. Once a word is associated with the feeling, use the the body worksheet to help discover where the emotion is felt. Start with known emotions, happiness and anger. Pick a color and mark where those occur most in your body. Once completed, attempt to identify more emotions. The more you are aware of your emotional reactions in your body, the easier to acknowledge them in the moment. For me, I felt a heaviness in my chest when I was thinking about experiencing Christmas Eve dinner without my Papa. (See illustrations below)
Every year on Christmas Eve, 30 plus people on my mom’s side of the family would get together to celebrate. Whether I was sitting on one side or the other of this large table, I can distinctly remember one person, my Papa at the head of the table. He was always a presence in any room, especially at Christmas as he represented a normalcy of family and tradition. He would sit there, usually with a smile, quietly observing all the loud conversations around him or involved in his own. All of a sudden, I’d hear a sharp, just loud enough, clearing of his throat and we knew it was time to start dinner. The first course was served, an amazing Norwegian dish called rice soup, and dinner was off and running. As it was winding down, I’d hear another throat clear from Papa. We all knew that meant a special Christmas story. When I was younger, I was extremely antsy for his stories to start because as soon as he finished it was present time! But as I got older, I realized the importance of this tradition and how much I missed him these last two holiday seasons.
Here I was again, presented with two opposing emotions. I acknowledged the heaviness in my heart as sadness and light pressure in my head as happiness. I needed to express them. Expression can help to release internal pressure of bottled up emotions and can be represented in many different ways. As a therapist, clients have expanded my understanding of what qualifies as expressing emotion. Like the following: confiding with a trusted person, writing in a journal, art, music, exercise, meditation, yoga, and hiking are some creative ways to express.
Ask yourself, “What do I do to release pressure?” Using your life experience is the best place to start for ideas on how you express emotions. For example, one of my favorite ways to release pent up emotion, is to take it out on a tiny white ball at the driving range. I’ve found that putting in headphones, listening to a favorite playlist, then working on a monotonous activity like a golf swing helps to decrease my emotional pressure. Afterwards, I’m in a better state to verbalize or write down my emotions and their impact connected with certain experiences. Try something old or new, its definitely an ongoing process to discover your creative ways to express.
As you experience the Holiday season, its normal to have emotional complexity. The presence of happiness and joy amidst sadness or hurt. Just remember, by acknowledging and expressing your emotions you could experience a more meaningful holiday time. But if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, struggling to complete everyday functions, it could be worthwhile to find a professional who could help. It takes tremendous courage and strength to seek help during our most vulnerable moments. John Wooden, legendary collegiate basketball coach, said, “Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”
The author, Jonathan Steele, is currently accepting new clients and may be reached at 619-272-6858 x709 or firstname.lastname@example.org