When I think of the holiday season, two competing feelings immediately come up – nostalgic happiness at the thought of celebrating with loved ones (as well as the Christmas cookies), and impending panic at the logistical nightmare of shopping, decorating, baking and visiting. Chronic illness has tilted the balance towards anxiety outweighing anticipation because my symptoms through so many obstacles in the way of getting ready for everything the holidays entail. Last year I shared mindfulness tips for managing the stress that can accompany the month of December – through staying present, being self-aware and treating yourself with kindness.
This year I’m reflecting on the true spirit of the holidays and what I really want to celebrate. The thing is – for most people, shopping till you drop, cooking up a storm, decking the halls, party hopping, and getting up early with the kids to open presents from Santa – is the essence of the Christmas celebration. Ideally, bonding with your loved ones over good food and the fun of exchanging presents puts family and togetherness at the heart of the holiday season.
A common criticism about how Christmas and other holidays are celebrated is that perfectionism over decorating and party planning, as well as greed in the form of materialistic gift-giving, take over the true purpose of the season. The expectations that we internalize and put on ourselves can really ruin the holiday spirit. What I’ve come to learn is that, If you live with chronic illness, you will inevitably fail to do all the things you’re supposed to do this time of the year. It sucks! But I’ve also learned that we don’t really have to live with the stress, disappointment and sense of failure that result from setting unrealistic holiday goals.
By returning to the core values underlying Christmas, Hanukkah, and other celebrations – generosity, compassion, hope, gratitude and love – I think we can find a new ways to meaningfully celebrate this time of the year. I’m trying something radical this year – extending some of those holiday feelings towards myself. So often I read tweet and blogs about how those of us who live with chronic illness are overachievers or perfectionists. Most likely the person you showed the least compassion and kindness to last December was yourself – am I right?
So what does the holiday season look like if I am compassionate to myself? Making more realistic plans and setting gentle boundaries is the first step. We have three families to celebrate with – my in-laws and my Mom’s and Dad’s families. This year we told everyone that back-to-back celebrations would not be possible. The end result is that we have Christmas Eve plans, and Boxing Day Plans, but we are staying home alone on Christmas day. Initially I felt quite guilty about this because I know everyone would love to see us on that day, but if I’m not gentle with myself I will ultimately end up having to cancel. And that would be worse! Compassion is like the oxygen mask analogy – you have to put yours on first before you can help the people beside you.
Another way that I am treating myself with more kindness is to use a softer and gentler tone in my own mind towards myself. When I start to feel stressed about not getting perfect gifts for everyone, or whatever problem that my inner gets judgmental about, I’m trying to take a deep breath and responding instead with more compassion and understanding. A good question to ask yourself is “what would I tell my best friend if she was facing this issue?”
I recently read a book called The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion which gave me the insight that, while we can’t change the challenging experiences or difficult emotions we face, we can change how we treat ourselves as we go along. Much of our suffering comes from resisting what is unfolding – worrying, ruminating, regretting, dreading, clinging, judging – rather than from direct experience of a painful circumstance. But if we can befriend ourselves, and compassionately hold ourselves while we go through a tough time, a lot of the unnecessary suffering can be short-circuited. It’s an ongoing practice, of course!
So far, I’m already finding it helpful to use the ‘loving-kindness phrases’ from compassion meditation to wish: “May I be safe, may I be peaceful, may I be joyful, may I live with ease and wellbeing”. I repeat these phrases both when I’m sitting in meditation or feeling anxious during the day. This is a secular practice I feel comfortable with, but many people send a prayer rather than a wish. In the Christian tradition, you are asked to ‘love you neighbour as yourself’, meaning cultivating love for yourself and caring for others. This can be done as a blessing exercise: “May I experience God’s love”, repeated for peace, safety and wellbeing.
In the guided meditation, we are then invited to focus on our feelings of love and compassion for people we are close to by repeating wishes for their happiness and well-being (May he/she be safe…peaceful…joyful…live with ease and wellbeing). Then, we extend those feelings to strangers and people we may have difficult relationships with. Finally, we practice extending love and kindness to all beings in the world. Here is an additional guided practice, along with the script, from Mindful Magazine.
If you are in conversation with someone at a holiday gathering, you can silently repeat the phrases to yourself as a wish or a blessing for them. Staying present is one of the best gifts you can give those you care about, rather than getting distracted by ticking items of your ‘perfect holiday to-do list’. Loving kindness phrases can re-anchor you in the moment to the values you are trying to put at the heart of the holidays.
This Christmas, as I try to direct the spirit of the holidays towards myself, I hope that, in turn, I can pass it on by treating my loved ones with more gratitude and loving kindness! By emphasizing these values, I think how we choose to spend our time will change. What form of togetherness actually gives you a sense of meaning and connection? Since pacing limits what I can do, I’m going to prioritize the things that really matter and hopefully have a heartfelt holiday season!