To start, I think it’s useful to understand what compassion is and what it is not. My working definition of compassion represents tender, empathic, and caring sentiments. It involves loving feelings that emerge when an injury (physical, emotional, or spiritual) is recognized and nurtured. Compassion is bringing a concerned, reinforcing spirit in the presence of wounding.
Our ideas of how the holidays should go can be a sticky combination of tradition, experience, marketing, and . . . fiction. Year after year I see my clients reflect the stresses of the season as old issues surface and old patterns take hold. Just around the corner from Halloween, the body starts to brace for the inevitable and resiliency disappears. Conflicting feelings of anticipation and anxiety show up in the body as a tangle of shoulder-neck-jaw tension, low back pain, random injuries, and general uptightness. In order to extend the good work beyond our ninety- minute session, I’ve developed a simple somatic strategy to change the holiday dynamic.
Phrases like these suggest an overly simplistic and logical approach to navigating what might be a stressful holiday season in our lives, but as the readers of this publication are well aware, there is a difference between the cognitive understanding of something and the embodied experience of it.
“When I was a child, Christmas happened on Christmas Eve. Mom, dad, sister, and I piled into the car and drove around the empty streets looking for Rudolf’s nose. I remember the silence illuminated by twinkling Christmas trees in windows and the slow, steady headlamps of whatever Chrysler dad was driving that year. But we were looking for the special light. The red one. Since we lived beneath the flightpath of the San Jose airport, it was not hard to find red blinking lights in the sky. Every year the question remained, “Which one is Rudolf’s nose?” It didn’t matter. My sister, Jenny, and I usually pointed one out and exclaimed, "There it is!" Mom and dad always answered with, “Let’s drive around a bit more, look at the neighborhood Christmas lights to give Santa time to bring your presents.” We did not complain because we knew that gifts were waiting under the tree when we returned home. It was like magic.
Silent . . . slowly . . . creeping . . . enters the shadowed alter world, the one I live in. This could be the year of disruption, stress, discomfort, and a family that wishes they could leave. I must stay vigilant and strong; I must be the peacekeeper, and I must make this holiday a happy one, regardless, of what abuse or stress I put myself through because it is my job. I am the mother of an addict and live in a shadowed alter world.
How can we hold onto expectations for our family members when they failed to give conscious agreement to how we want them to behave?
My Mum recently asked my partner and I what we were doing for Christmas. I was slightly surprised to find myself announcing that I was cancelling Christmas this year. Here we were, together in late summer, celebrating my stepdad’s 70th birthday. I was more than happy to get together, to mark midwinter, to mark the passing year, maybe, but I had no desire to mark the 25th December. The past few years I’ve celebrated Christmas less and less. I still partake in many of its rituals: card writing, cake-making, present giving, and watching my nieces in their nativity plays. But Christmas day?
It’s already starting. Holiday decorations are showing up at the stores, music is playing at the mall, pumpkin lattes abound. The cultural and familial buildup to this season is magnified every year and, for many people, becomes totally overwhelming. The experience of “too much” can replicate traumatic overwhelm in our nervous system, creating a whole season of nervous system dysregulation. This dysregulation then creates heightened emotions and reactivity ("What!? They didn't make a vegan pumpkin pie??!"), depression and anxiety (“They don’t like my gift or I have to get the perfect gift") and often a desire to literally escape the season's events (fleeing by not going to the party) or a desire to dissociate (fleeing by leaving your body - I'll just be on my phone for the whole dinner).