‘Tis the season when we spend our days sipping hot cocoa, binging on Netflix, gifting good gifts and doing all sorts of holiday fun-ness with our loved ones. It’s the jolliest time of year! At least, that’s the lovely picture we’re all marketed for the holidays. The unfortunate reality is this picturesque holiday scenario is anything but the norm.
For many people, this time of year can be a painful reminder of the things they’re not surrounded by. And you know what happens then? Loneliness starts creeping in. And the painful feeling grows and grows, until you’re convinced you’re destined to be a lonely cretin whom no one wants to be around.
Part of that reason is simply because of our cultural expectations around what the holidays should be like. When we set our expectations to be one thing, and the reality is something different, we can see it as less than. And that’s where the trouble starts.
“Cultural expectations about the holidays could lead to feelings of shame about being alone this holiday season,” Paulette Sherman, a psychologist and relationship expert in New York says. Think, for instance, about all of those holiday family films that are, well, about the hilarious, tense, but ultimately heartwarming ~feels~ that come from quality time with the fam. “This sets up expectations for what’s ‘normal’ and as a result they feel they are a failure or aren’t good enough,” Sherman said.
The reality is, though, your IRL version could easily not match what you see on the screen. You might have a job that requires you to be away from loved ones. You might be abroad, mourning someone’s death or simply not have the financial resources to do all you want. All of that, while challenging, is perfectly normal. But, coping with the loneliness and holiday blues can be challenging regardless.
That’s why we reached out to mental health and relationship experts for their best advice on how to cope with holiday loneliness. Here’s what they had to say.
“Since the holiday season is short and goes quickly it creates a sense of urgency and overwhelm making you feel like there’s so much to do and so little time to get everything done. Expectation is also a huge cause of stress during the holidays. Everything from holiday decorating to shopping and gift giving to family gatherings come with expectations that are most often unrealistic which causes you to stress about measuring up to those expectations whether they are your own or ones held by family and friends.
“When people get stressed or feel overwhelmed they can begin to feel alone in their struggles”
When people get stressed or feel overwhelmed they can begin to feel alone in their struggles, especially when they see everyone else seemingly ‘happy’ and having everything under control. Social media can be a huge culprit of making it seem that everyone else has it all together except you with those Insta-perfect pics. Even though social media is for “connecting” with others it can actually do the opposite and make you feel less connected and more alone especially when you compare your life to those you see. Try limiting time on social media to once or twice a day at most and for no more than 20 minutes.”
— Emily Cosgrove, LMFT and Life Coach
“When people feel lonely, sad or are struggling they tend to isolate themselves or feel unmotivated to leave their home. They feel like it’s easier to stay at home in their comfort zone or they’re struggling with feelings of depression and don’t want to leave their home. They may struggle with knowing how to connect with others and in planning an activity. They may also feel unworthy of someone’s time and that they would burden or inconvenience others by asking them to participate in an activity or by sharing their feelings. They get caught up in their low self-esteem and negative thoughts they tell themselves that may cause anger or frustration or resentment and choose to isolate instead of socialize or reach out.
The best way to stop and change negative thoughts is by choosing to see them for what they are-as lies rooted in fear, self-doubt and low self-esteem. Their purpose is to keep us from pursuing the things and opportunities that interest us in creating a life we love. To change it, ask yourself if this is a kind thought you are telling yourself. Flip the lie to a positive thought, for example if you are struggling with worth and feelings of deserving ask yourself “Who am I not to deserve this?” Start repeating “I am worthy” multiple times throughout the day and you will begin to believe it and act from a place of feeling worthy and deserving. The more you practice positive thinking, the more empowered and confident you will feel in pursuing your goals and dreams.”
“Don’t let yourself feel ashamed of being alone. Think of it as a day you can do whatever you want. Look at your self talk and if you are judging yourself or comparing your situation to others, cut it out. Tell yourself that you are loveable and treat yourself accordingly. You have nothing to prove and spending time alone can be enjoyable if you let yourself approve of yourself and your life right now, as it is.
It’s okay to feel sad and to let yourself feel lonely. Everyone has bouts of loneliness at times and often it’s because family may be far away or maybe right now you don’t have a significant other or kids. Spend some time feeling your feelings until they dissipate. You can do this by practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness teaches you how to be aware of your feelings, to feel them in your body and to allow and accept them without creating a narrative around them.
“This practice allows you to feel the emotions and to be curious and compassionate with yourself around your feelings without judgment. Often when we do this a person may cry or feel an intensity of emotions for some time and in accepting and inviting these feelings to be present they dissipate and more calm and peace prevails. There are mindfulness guided meditations that you can do on things like The Mindfulness App if this practice is new to you.”
— Paulette Sherman, psychologist and relationship expert
“Practice opposite to emotion action to change your mood by engaging in behavior that is opposite to what your current emotion is pulling from you. For example, if you are angry and feel yourself tensing up, then try to open your posture and uncross your arms. Similarly, if you are feeling sad and lonely and want to withdraw then make a point to reach out to friends or watch a funny or scary movie to help mitigate sadness.
The theory behind the skill ‘opposite emotion’ is that every emotion is accompanied by an urge to engage in certain behaviors and these behaviors perpetuate the emotion. For example, the action urge for anxiety is avoidance. The more you avoid something you fear, the more intense your anxiety will become, and so approaching what you fear will help reduce anxiety both because you learn the situation is okay and because you aren’t continuing to reinforce your fear by avoiding the situation. A common misconception or beginner’s version of the skill is that opposite emotion is simply doing what you don’t want to do, but that’s not totally going to cut it when it comes to changing your emotion. It is important to note that the goal is not to push away your emotion or suppress it, but rather to work on cultivating another emotion.”
— Nicole Issa, co-founder of the Center for Dynamic and Behavioral Therapy
“Gather your best friends around you and make some special plans to have a wonderful day. Send cards or personal notes to everyone who means a lot to you. Or, use your energy and resources on behalf of people who need your help. Volunteer to tutor students, help at a homeless shelter, or visit wounded veterans in the hospital. Decorate floats for a holiday parade. Having a plan that makes you happy is the best way to fend off the blues.Get together with friends or family, or go skiing or join a theater production!
Make your holidays a spiritual growth time, attending a ritual or workshop or gathering with close friends instead of being out with the crowds. If you are clear about what will make the day special for you, and focus on that instead of what’s not happening, you’ll feel better about yourself and you won’t have any reason to pity yourself.
Here are some Do’s and Don’ts:
DO: Think about the holidays in advance: Ask friends to join you, or find activity that is meaningful to you
DON’T: Allow the occasion to sneak up on you
DO: Think about what will create the most meaningful experience for you. It’s a great time to look within
DON’T: Focus on what everyone else might be doing
DO: Consider doing something different than usual—this is a great time to try something new
DON’T: Isolate—unless you do it as a meditative experience
— Tina B. Tessina, licensed marriage and family therapist
*Comments have been edited for length and clarity.