For all the beauty of the Christmas season, it can be a difficult time for survivors of emotional child abuse. Whether the adult is estranged from toxic parents or still in contact, the adult often must battle feelings of sorrow, frustration, anger, and loss.
At the Invisible Scar, we recognize all those valid feelings… but we also hope to give some ideas for creating new (and realistic) expectations for this special time of year. These tips will not offer any miracle cure for the very real pain of survivors of emotional child abuse—but I hope these ideas will bring comfort and joy to those who want to, despite all the past abuse, live good, healthy lives no longer dominated by the past. The scars are real, the pain is real… but there is beauty to be found in a new present, in a new beginning.
1. Find meaning in the season.
Find or reconnect to a purpose, meaning or value during the season.” (Christy Matta, MA; Holiday Stress Survival Tips)
What do you want to celebrate this holiday season? Is it the birth of Jesus Christ? Is it goodwill towards all?
Knowing what you want to celebrate can help you focus on what matters most for this season (and beyond). When we have ideal yet vague pictures about what the season means, we can get overwhelmed with the 45,340 different interpretations of celebrating it. Take time to focus on what you want to celebrate.
2. Have realistic expectations.
If individuals have locked horns for most of the year, it is not reasonable to think that on one day all will be forgiven. We need to be gentle with ourselves.” (Edward T. Creegan, MD; Reality vs Myth in Fighting Holiday Stress)
Many people place a huge burden on themselves and others during the holiday season. Whether inspired by too many Lifetime movie channel holiday movies or one’s own sense of longing for the perfect Christmas, folks can get caught up in needing everything to be just PERFECT. Everything needs to be the exact manifestation of every Christmas-related longing the person has had their entire life.
To cope with unrealistic expectations, make your expectations very specific and weigh just how realistic they are. For example, I may have this unrealistic expectation: I want to go ice skating with my aunts, uncles, and cousins at the vast, gorgeous lake near my mountain home. The problems are: I do not live near those relatives; I do not have a nearby lake; I do not live in the mountains or anywhere cold. So, I can transform an unrealistic expectation to a more realistic one: I will go ice skating at This Skating Rink on this day with my husband and children.
3. Create new traditions.
Most folks do what their families have done because, well, their families have always done those things. But now, in the beginning of the season, take time to think about the traditions that your family had that you liked and would like to continue. Or think about which ones you always wanted but didn’t do because you felt you couldn’t or shouldn’t. Want to decorate your Christmas tree on Christmas Eve instead of Dec. 1? Go for it. Want to make gingerbread houses with pink frosting instead of red? Make them.
Think of traditions that you’d like to bring to your life now. (You can even do an online search of holiday traditions and learn about new ones you want to incorporate into your holiday season.) If you are part of a chosen family (as opposed to a birth family), you may want to discuss what to do for the holiday season. Some families sit down and think of one holiday-themed activity to do for every week in December.
4. Celebrate simple pleasures.
In the much-maligned movie Surviving Christmas, one of the characters talks about the simple beauty of a Christmas tree in the woods and how much its quiet beauty touched her. Another character, in a misguided attempt to woo her, decorates the tree and completely goes overboard with glitz and glam, thereby ruining what she had treasured for its simplicity.
Think about how overdone things can be, but— rather than shun the entire season— focus instead on simple beauty. The power of the season is in the small things. The Christ child in a manger—not a child in a high-priced, elaborate cradle set in a castle. A Christmas star—not a Christmas meteor shower. A drummer boy whose gift is to play rat-a-tat-tat on a drum—not a full-fledged orchestra.
What simple beauty can you add to your life? What small things can be done with great love?
5. See the beauty around you.
An enormously helpful suggestion I was given a long time ago was to look for the beauty around you. In other words, really see things. Notice the simple beauty tucked in our everyday. Sometimes, it’s hidden in small things. For example, a pretty Christmas drawing on a latte cup. A snowflake pattern on the window. The beauty of bright pink and bright green on a scarf.
If you’ve been around chronically disgruntled people, you know that they will always find something to complain about. Anything is fodder for a complaint… and you can get blue in the face trying to “help” them see the beauty.
Don’t be that person.
Instead, purposefully seek to see things during this season that are uplifting and good. No, not everything is perfect. Yes, we are, as author John Green says, all broken… but it’s all right to seek the good things and be grateful for them.
6. Be with loved ones.
Be with people who genuinely like you and value who you are… and who you value, too. Just being with good friends who make you laugh or think or feel good is a gift during this Christmas season. Instead of forcing yourself to spend time with people who drain you emotionally, who abuse you, who treat you horribly, choose instead to be with people who respect you.
Remember, you get to choose your social sphere.
7. Reach out to folks.
You’d be surprised how many people are far from their relatives or other loved ones during the Christmas season. Invite them to coffee or to go see a tree-lighting ceremony or see Christmas lights. We know folks who have a Misfit Christmas; they invite everyone they know who are on their own at Christmas, and everyone gets together–despite some folks not knowing each other. It’s a beautiful tradition, the company always varies, and it’s always fun. We also know folks who choose to spend the holiday working at a local shelter and bringing light to others.
8. Be gentle with others (i.e., cut people some slack).
The unrealistic expectations we sometimes have for the holiday can result in unrealistic expectations we put other people. If you didn’t get a Christmas card from someone, don’t assume they don’t love you or don’t think about you; they might just be insanely busy, lack funds to buy a book of stamps (they get pricier each year), choose not to follow that tradition, etc. You don’t know the reasons why someone cut you off in the parking lot, forgot to buy you a gift, is being crabby at the store, etc., so cut people some slack. You’ll feel better in taking the high road… and you’ll have less stress as well.
9. Avoid social networks.
With so many people constantly posting glimpses into their amazing lives via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Vine, etc., adult survivors of emotional child abuse can start feeling down about not having amazing, loving families that everyone else seems to have. It’s natural to feel that sorrow… It’s completely normal to feel sad about not having had a loving birth family…. but to remain in that sorrow is not a good thing (which is why I often mention the importance of going to therapy).
The holidays can ramp up the amount of family-related posts on social networks, so you may want to consider taking a break from social networks for the holidays.
10. Take “calm down” breaks.
Whenever you get stressed out, anxious or feel overwhelmed during the day, take quick relaxation breaks of 1 to 5 minutes to calm yourself down.” (Connie Bennett, 7 Tips to Relieve Holiday Stress)
Have any suggestions to share? Please feel free to add a comment… In the spirit of this post, let’s keep the comments as positive suggestions. Thanks!