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Getting Through the Holidays When They’re Tough for You or Those You Love

Getting Through the Holidays When They’re Tough for You or Those You Love

I grew up in a PTSD household. My father has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder much longer than I’ve been alive and continues to battle it today. This is partially due to his military service in the Vietnam era, but it goes deeper than that, into his childhood and the abusive relationship he had with his parents. For him, and millions of other people struggling with various mental health challenges, holidays and special occasions are often a confusing and painful struggle. For my dad, Christmas tends to be the worst.

Many people struggling with mental health challenges will – often for completely logical reasons – experience emotions differently than others in the same situation. Of itself, this is neither good nor bad. It just is. Once meaning gets assigned to it is when it might become a problem. For example, family gatherings can bring out significant anxiety in people like my dad who had horrific early childhood experiences with their families. Sometimes they perceive themselves as not belonging and have a hard time joyfully participating. This is generally not an expected reaction at family gatherings (no judgment if it is your experience), but it is something that others can express confusion or even distress over.


“You should be happy! It’s the holidays!”

Those of you who have read my previous articles probably figured out by now that I have a special loathing of when people dictate to others what they should be feeling or thinking. Telling someone they should be happy during a special occasion is no exception. The words “should,” “must,” “supposed to,” or any other variants of that theme can essentially act as a way of imposing one’s own beliefs over reality.

One particularly influential and highly irreverent psychologist named Albert Ellis nicknamed this “musterbation.” It’s often done with the best of intentions, like when a person is trying to cheer someone up. Think about it, though. If a person is already confused about what to feel or perceiving themselves as “broken” or not belonging, pointing out how they shouldn’t be feeling the way they are isn’t likely to decrease their unpleasant experiences. It frequently acts as a way of confirming their negative beliefs about themselves.


“How do I cheer them up?!”

If you – as the wonderful and caring person that you are – want to cheer someone up for the holidays or other special occasions, first ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is their behavior disruptive, or is it just different than expected?
  • Am I trying to cheer them up more for their benefit or mine?

The first question is important. If a person’s behavior is disruptive, that’s a problem. For example, a friend is invited to a birthday party, and he/she actively insists on telling everyone about a recent suicide attempt and how parties like this want to make him/her do it again. Aside from being a serious red flag that this friend likely needs more therapeutic resources, it’s actively disrupting the party for everyone. On the other hand, if a person is simply being quiet or their facial expressions are different than others, that’s not necessarily disrupting the party. That person might be having fun, but simply doesn’t show it the same way as others, which is fine!

When a person’s behavior is simply different but not disruptive is when the second question becomes very important. If they’re just acting differently than expected, but you are the one distressed by that, reflect on that. You might be trying to change them for your benefit, rather than theirs. It may be that you need to build tolerance for your own distress rather than changing them.

Once you’re clear on your intentions and motivations, how do you directly cheer a person up? You don’t. At least not directly. Most people don’t react well when people approach them with an agenda. Instead of trying to force an expected outcome (Remember the “should” thing from earlier?) just try to connect with them. It’s okay to check in with them by asking how they’re enjoying things. If they say they are, choose to believe them. Then just talk to them as you would anyone else. If they choose to open up to you and tell you they have a difficult time with holidays/gatherings, show them understanding. Try saying something like this:

“Yeah. Special occasions can be tough for a lot of people for a lot of reasons that make total sense. What can I do to help you have the best time you can?”

This shows not only understanding, but it puts the ball in their court regarding your involvement, instead of you imposing cheer on them like the Re-Neducation Center from the Simpsons. It allows them their own autonomy while showing that you are willing to help in whatever way you can.

 What You Feel is Fine

What if you’re the one with complicated feelings about the holidays, and you’re muttering “should” statements to yourself? You’re not alone! You feel what you feel. Acknowledge it. Odds are that there’s a logical reason for what you’re feeling, even if you’re not yet aware of it. Regardless of why, a feeling is just that. If it bothers you to the point that you can’t enjoy your life, that’s a good signal that some help might be needed. We have resources for finding a mental health professional at

Also, as hard as it can be, it’s helpful to remember that people are likely trying to cheer you up for the kindest of reasons. It’s helpful to remember because you can thank them for their effort and intention, even if the resulting method is way off-base. This also helps them listen to what you need when you tell them. People are way less likely to act defensive if you show empathy for their intentions. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” can go a long way.

Holidays and special occasions aren’t easy for everyone, and that’s okay. Give yourself a break. Additionally, if you’re looking for a way to help others or are looking for a welcoming community to join during the holidays, Take This will be having our third It’s Dangerous to Stream Alone fundraiser this holiday. Our goal is to create a welcoming community during the holidays because sometimes the holidays are not all they’re cracked up to be. We would love to have you join in on the fun. You can find more info at our Tiltify campaign page.

Raffael Boccamazzo (AKA “Dr. B”) is a doctor of clinical psychology and clinical director He also runs a private psychotherapy and psychological assessment practice in the Seattle area and works with several local groups as a social skills coach, often for older teens and young adults with high functioning autism spectrum diagnoses. In his spare time, he cooks, acts, and plays oodles of different tabletop and video games.

Take This is an informational organization. The resources we provide are for informational purposes only, and should not be used to replace the specialized training and professional judgment of a health care or mental health care professional. For more information about these resources, please visit our website.

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