This is the second post I’m doing about mental health and the holidays; the first was about caring for yourself in the face of a loved one’s mental illness. Today, it’s all about your mental health during the holidays. Everybody knows that you don’t need to have a mental illness for this time of year to mess with your head. And: apologies in advance for this being a Christian-centric perspective, but it applies to all people of all religions who spend time traveling, visiting, hosting, etc. So, for everyone, here’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself–
I say, “I’m not up for that.”
It’s not a new idea. I didn’t make it up. But I say it only when I mean it, and I insist on everyone respecting it. The key to this, however, is something many of the “learn to say no” blog posts I’ve read seem to skip over–how do you know when to say it?
The first step in this whole process, really, is to know your own limitations. You have to get all Zen about this, because it does no one any good for you to make a list of all the things you hate about yourself and beat yourself black and blue for being imperfect. Everyone has limitations. Own them. They are part of you, and your loved ones are supposed to love all of you, not just the happy, shiny parts. It’s ok to remind yourself that they still love you, even if they don’t like that you’re saying no. And especially when you don’t like that you’re saying no.
Think of it this way: if you can’t lift a heavy object, you’re not necessarily “in bad shape” – you’re simply not strong enough to lift it. Even Olympic weight lifters have to stop somewhere, or they risk injury. How much can you lift? I’ve gotten stronger, literally, since becoming a mom, because I started off with a roughly-seven-pound weight to carry around, and now I’m carrying an almost-twenty-two pound Tiny Man. I practiced with the smaller Tiny Man, and now I can carry the bigger version. It’s very considerate of him to grow that way, isn’t it? (Now, can someone tell me how to make him slow down? Please?) But I digress. Apply this to your mental and emotional well-being; what’s light as a feather and what is a big hunk of marble?
I love baking, but I have a really hard time shopping. A bunch of our friends and family are getting baked goods for Christmas, this year. Easy peasy. You can never have too many baked goods, and my plan involves festive recyclable/disposable containers. Recently, I expressed my limitations quite badly and hurt someone’s feelings. I didn’t think about holiday shopping, I just thought about how much I like doing anything, including shopping, with her (which makes her sort of magical, by the way). So, when she suggested a particular store, I blurted out that that store makes me anxious. Other things happened, my anxiety ratcheted up, I let her go by herself without clarifying that it was just that store, not her–it was a messy day. You know what we did to bond, later? We baked cookies! It worked out beautifully, in the end, because we talked about it. We knew that we were having healing/bonding time in the kitchen.
I know that it’s not easy for a lot of us to say “I don’t like to do ___,” especially when it’s something festive and others are excited. Maybe it seems like everybody but you just loves the mall at Christmas. But stop and think for a moment. There are others that dislike crowds. You know that there are. There’s no reason to be mean to yourself because you are one of them, any more than anyone else needs to be mean to herself because she just adores places with lots of hustle and bustle. There’s also no way for others to know that going shopping will no be fun for you, unless you tell them. So you have to have a talk with yourself, first.
One of my favorite people in the whole wide world is a relative who has a very hard time during the holidays, because a lot of very scary memories from her very scary past come back to haunt her. If she doesn’t call me, I get nervous about her well-being. If she writes me a few sentences in an email to say, “I’m having a hard time, but I don’t want to talk to anyone and I love you,” then I know that she’s not good, but she’ll be ok, and it’s nice to be told that she loves me. I write back that I always love to talk to her, but that it’s perfectly fine for her to be a turtle in a shell, and I am always here when she wants to talk, again. It works so well!
The last piece of advice I have to give about this is a tough one: listen to your heart, the part of you that has no words. You may not have words for what your limitations are. You may not be able to say “I don’t like that store, but please, let’s bake cookies when you get back.” But you can say “I don’t feel up to that. I love you!” If asked why, it’s ok to say you don’t know why. Lately, my husband has started saying, “I don’t understand, but I don’t have to.” It’s not the best feeling in the world when I say that I need to be alone, and he doesn’t understand. This usually happens when I don’t know why I feel such a strong need to be alone. I usually try to give a reason, but it doesn’t always ring true, even to me. It’s the best I have. He knows that. He’s super awesome, and I haven’t come across many people who can say “I don’t understand, but I don’t have to.” Most people want to understand. I want to understand! I want to explain! If you do, too, but you can’t, then you feel frustrated. So, you feel frustrated. It won’t be the end of the world.
Why not feel frustrated while doing the thing that “everyone else” is doing that you really hate doing? Good question! Because: you matter, and you will not feel increasingly anxious/frustrated/whatever ickiness. When “everyone else” gets back from that thing that you hate, or when you get back from your trip out of the house to avoid that thing that you hate, you’ll be ready to enjoy the things that you do actually like. Seeing you smile and enjoy yourself is a pretty good distraction from wondering why you can’t just participate in that other part. The truth is, you probably CAN. But you don’t have to. That’s ok. I promise. Even my niece and nephew have understood, at very young ages, when I have said that I’m not feeling so good and need a rest. When I come back, they are ready to play, and so am I!
The reason to do the hard work of recognizing and embracing your limitations, even if the best you can do is say “I don’t like that,” without rhyme or reason, is that it frees up a ton of energy for you to enjoy the rest of your time with family and friends. Be a grinch for an hour, so that you can be jolly for the rest of the day! Or maybe you have to be a grinch for a day. But do whatever it takes to free up that energy you need to show the people you love and enjoy just how much you enjoy them and love them. Sometimes, I need to be a Grinch, but now that I own that, I can also sometimes join hands and sing with all of Whoville.