When the Holidays Are Hard: Surviving and Thriving This Holiday Season

Written by
Karen Costa

Dec 2, 2019

Dec 2, 2019 • by Karen Costa

As I considered how to write a holiday piece that would benefit WIHE readers, I thought of the following groups: trans* folx, disabled individuals, those who don’t celebrate mainstream holidays, people estranged from their families, the grieving and people living with addiction. I thought of anyone for whom the intense cadence of the holidays, the celebrations at work and home and the darkest days of the year make them feel more alone, more at a loss and more disconnected from their fellow humans.

To create space and share strategies for anyone experiencing the hard parts of the holidays, I spoke to two women working in higher education, who each offered heartfelt insights about how to survive, and possibly even thrive, when the holidays are hard. Dr. Shawnte Elbert is the associate dean of health and wellness (and a health and wellness coach) at Central Washington University, and Maria Shine Stewart is a writer, community counselor and doctoral student, passionate about creating a caring culture in academia and beyond. Read on for their suggested strategies for navigating the holiday season.

Recognize and Name the Challenges

While December brings the end of the calendar year, for those of us working in higher education, it also marks the end of an academic term. Elbert identifies end-of-year reports as a major pressure during the holiday season. For Stewart, expectations around grades and other administrative tasks are noteworthy. Most everyone in higher education, whether their campuses close or not, are trying to complete critical tasks and tie up loose ends before their holiday breaks. And that’s just at work.

At home, there can be pressure to spend time with family members who might bring discord or drama to the table. Stewart points to anxieties born of trying to replicate the imagined “TV family” as a challenge. For Elbert, the financial woes of single parents are close to her heart. “Many women are having to do a lot of holiday work on their own,” she says, “and it can be a reminder that they aren’t where they want to be financially.” Elbert also notes that many day cares and schools are closed during the holidays, meaning that parents—often mothers—are responsible for either providing child care or paying for it.

Redefine or Release Traditions

Stewart emphasizes the importance of reducing expectations during the holiday season, both our own and those of others. “Allow softness in your life—less frenzy,” she says. “Instead of making 10 recipes, make one or two. If you choose to entertain, have a shorter gathering.” It is also OK, says Elbert, to opt out. She explains, “Say no to things that feel disconnecting, whether they are people, places or things.”

Elbert, who recently moved across the country, away from family, in order to further her career, is also intentional about creating new traditions with her husband, children and friends: “We learned how to celebrate the holidays when we didn’t have a lot. We focused on creating memories together that weren’t tied to gifts.” She also adds that social connections are key all year long, but especially during the holiday season. She notes, “For me, as a woman of color, and for my LGBTQ friends, connecting with others is critical. Spend time with people who believe in you, and who have your best interests at heart.” How does she prioritize those plans? “I put those dates in my calendar with a Sharpie,” she says, because “they are non-negotiable.”

Be Mindful and Inclusive

In recognition that not everyone celebrates the same holiday, or any holiday, during the months of November through January, how can we create inclusive spaces, both inside and outside of the workplace? Elbert recommends considering our word choices and labels at work. “Instead of a Thanksgiving celebration, we have a potluck. Instead of a Christmas party, we have an ugly sweater competition. Be mindful of what you call things,” she says.

Stewart suggests a variety of practical and inclusive holiday strategies. “Support a cause by donating what you have to give. Invite someone who might seem disconnected out for a cup of coffee. Remember those living in shelters by packing up clothes and food to donate,” she says. “My mom was a store clerk. She spent long hours on her feet, working under pressure, often dealing with challenging customers. Be kind to clerks in stores.”

When in doubt, in the words of Elbert, “Go back to being human.” Simple strategies help. “Ask people if they are OK and be comfortable with the uncomfortable silence that might come with that question,” she says. “Sit with someone and offer them a tissue. I carry a tissue with me at all times. Being present with someone is often more than enough.”

Focus on Moments, Not Months

When the holidays feel too big, think small. “Take one simple breath,” Stewart says. “Hold it for a second or two and exhale. Really think about that breath. You know how to do it. Just do it.”

Elbert echoes this idea. “Enjoy the moment,” she says. “Often, the moments are easier to absorb than the entire holiday. Be mindful of this very moment.” Stewart shared the visual of a photo album to support this idea of mindfulness. “Think of your life as an album. One glitch isn’t the whole album; it’s just one photo,” she says. “Keep your eyes on the album, and turn the page.”

Stewart also recommends using the senses to connect to the present moment. “Being a sophisticated doctoral student,” she says, “I keep a teddy bear in my car as a reminder to relax on my long commute home. I also carry a handkerchief with my late mom’s cologne on it. Keep a favorite scent with you to help you reconnect and relax.”

Know Your Resources

There is a spectrum of holiday hardness. If the holidays become too much for you, both Elbert and Stewart recommend that you reach out for professional support. Elbert suggests checking to see if your campus offers an Employee Assistance Program. Many do, and they can connect you with therapy and self-care options. Stewart notes that for some, the “holiday blues” might not appear until after the holiday season has ended, “after company has gone home, or there were none there to begin with.” If you experience depressed or anxious feelings, she suggests consulting with the health professional of your choice.

While challenges abound during the holiday season, what shines through in the words and ideas of both Elbert and Stewart is that within the hard times, there is endless opportunity for connection with others, and that, in many cases, the challenges can bring us closer.


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