This holiday season, give yourself something truly invaluable: permission to feel messy, complex emotions that don't match up with your expectations or the perfect images people share online.
You may have wanted something more glamorous or luxurious, but this gift does what fancy experiences and material possessions cannot. Greeting uncomfortable feelings with curiosity and compassion instead of shame and judgment can anchor someone feeling adrift, lost, or overwhelmed. Holiday stress is particularly unforgiving, bearing down on people at the exact moment when they're expected to be cheerful, caring, grateful, and generous. The dissonance between what you perceive are the right emotions and what you're actually feeling can cause lots of pain.
COVID-19 only heightens the stakes, unleashing more confusing or unwanted emotions. Someone who skips a family gathering because of rising cases might feel unexpected relief — and therefore guilt — because it means avoiding a loved one whose political opinions cause drama at the dinner table. Vaccinated people thrilled to see family safely for the first winter holiday since the pandemic began might be frustrated that their thoughts are dominated by anxiety and fear about breakthrough cases and, as a result, berate themselves for not being able to relax.
If this emotional quicksand sounds familiar, consider practicing self-compassion. The concept is simple enough. When you experience personal discomfort, disappointment, or failure, respond with kindness and understanding. This is easy to recommend but hard to embrace because of the myth that self-criticism, harsh judgment, or avoidance are helpful responses to unpleasant emotions.
Your digital life can make it even harder to practice self-compassion when social media keeps serving up holiday-themed posts that contradict your own complex experiences. Few people are inclined to caption their well-lit Instagram photos of a holiday feast with details about how they feel grateful for the opportunity to gather but also angry because they couldn't share the meal with an unvaccinated parent. Rest assured that you're not alone. Countless people smile their way through holiday festivities without hinting at the darker emotions, like grief, guilt, regret, and longing, that lurk beneath the surface.
Instead of trying to ignore the angst and pile on the good cheer, consider this refrain as a first step toward self-compassion: However I feel right now is OK. In fact, it's likely a normal response to the circumstances, something any human being would feel if they shared your experience. There are, of course, important exceptions. If you're feeling suicidal or so distraught that it interferes with your ability to function, seek help or support from a loved one or trusted medical or mental health professional. Self-compassion can help lessen the sting of our greatest struggles by offering warmth and caring in place of cold judgment.
The internet is chock full of advice about how to practice self-compassion, but you might start by consulting the website of Dr. Kristin Neff, Ph.D., an expert on the subject and author of several books, including Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.
Neff has written about three elements that define self-compassion: recognition that imperfection is part of being human; acknowledgement that "suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience" rather than something that happens at an individual level; and mindfulness that helps people observe their negative thoughts and emotions without overly identifying with or becoming swept up by them. Neff offers a number of approachable exercises to help people cultivate self-compassion, like exploring it through writing, changing critical self-talk, and using supportive touch to comfort yourself.
You could also turn to psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach, who emphasizes the importance of radical acceptance, which she defines as "the courage to face and accept reality, our current experience, what's happening now." To practice radical acceptance, you need both mindfulness and compassion. There's also Sonya Renee Taylor, a poet, educator, and social justice activist whose concept of radical self-love transcends the notion of positive self-esteem and aims to help people reject self-loathing born of social, political, and cultural messaging about their worth and value.
None of these experts suggest that self-compassion is a tool for avoiding personal accountability and responsibility. When you make a mistake, it's important to own it and repair the damage, but punishing yourself in perpetuity isn't the answer. This is also true of contradictory emotions. Bullying yourself into feeling the right thing for the occasion, whether it's gratitude at Thanksgiving, generosity during religious holidays, or hope for a fresh start on New Year's Day is just that: bullying.
This year, of all years, be kind to yourself instead.