There are many festive signs that the holidays are upon us: Christmas carols on the radio, department store Santas, holiday window displays, ads for the latest gift ideas. While many of us welcome the pageantry, others feel a powerful loneliness that undercuts any possible feelings of comfort and joy.
According to a 2006 survey conducted by the research firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for the American Psychological Association, one in four Americans report experiencing loneliness during the holiday season. Perhaps you're among them. If so, you might dread the feeling and wonder what you can do to avoid it.
Reasons for Holiday Loneliness
Why, during Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year's, can a person feel lonely? After all, they are times of social gatherings, shared rituals and reminiscences. And if a person is lonely at other times, why do holidays seem to make the feeling even worse?
"Loneliness is or seems more intense during the holidays because of all the media coverage that describes holidays as a time for gatherings, friends and family," says Elaine Rodino, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in State College, Pennsylvania. She asserts that this Norman Rockwell-like characterization of the holidays can seem unreal to people whose families don't fit the traditional-nuclear-family mold due to circumstances within or beyond their control. Deaths, divorce, misunderstandings, financial problems, geographical separation -- these and other factors can affect a person's sense of isolation during the holidays.
Holidays also have a way of bringing up the past, causing us to compare current holidays to previous ones. According to Susan Anderson, LCSW, a psychotherapist and author of "The Journey from Abandonment to Healing" and "Taming Your Outer Child," "The sights, smells and sounds of holidays hearken back to childhood when you were nestled in your family and create a painful contrast to your current aloneness."
Of course, that's if your past holidays were happy ones. But what if your memories of those times are sad or even traumatic? In that case, you might still feel lonely if your emotional wounds haven't been addressed and healed.
Loneliness and Depression
Is feeling lonely on holidays the same as being depressed? "The pain of loneliness mimics severe depression," says Anderson. "Loneliness can include the sadness, self-loathing and lack of motivation that typify severe depression. But loneliness is temporary and circumstantial in that it can instantly lift when companionship becomes available."
Rodino agrees: "When a person feels lonely, it is based on the actuality of being alone or feeling different than those around [him or her]. This, for example, may be a person alone in a new city for a new job. There is a reality to the loneliness. If the person is feeling down and lonely, yet they have easy access to family and friends, this sounds more like depression."
Crucial to coping with holiday loneliness is being aware of any unrealistic expectations you may have about what to do and how to feel. "Sometimes a moderate amount of good times may be seen as 'not enough' compared to the expectations," says Rodino. Anderson offers a similar view: "The media hype and your own conception of holidays raise your expectation for joy and togetherness, setting you up for heightened sorrow about being alone. You 'should' on yourself for not having the life you 'expected' to have."
Both Rodino and Anderson point out that holiday loneliness can trigger feelings of abandonment, unworthiness and self-doubt, and raises the question "What's wrong with me?"
Taking Charge of Your Feelings
Rather than dread the isolation and loneliness you feel during the holidays, there are things you can do to minimize those feelings and experience greater emotional balance and personal fulfillment. Anderson and Rodino offer these suggestions:
-Recognize your loneliness instead of denying it. Your feelings are real and worth exploring. If you feel you can't share with family or friends what you're going through, consider talking with a therapist.
-Anticipate your loneliness and plan for it. Reconnect with people with whom you've lost touch. Create your own social event and invite people to it.
-Celebrate the holidays in a different way. If being at home or attending a family event is a source of discomfort, take a trip. If giving gifts or making holiday preparations stress or depress you, pare down those tasks or share them with others.
-Take care of yourself. Do what you can to reduce your stress and connect with things and activities that you enjoy. Get plenty of rest, eat delicious and healthy foods, go to a museum or movie, get a massage, take a bubble bath -- do whatever feels safe and brings you comfort.
-Limit your alcohol intake. Alcohol is a depressant, not a stimulant, and as such it can magnify your feelings of sadness.
-Reach out and help someone else. Volunteering is a powerful antidote to loneliness because it boosts one's feelings of self-worth and usefulness. Embracing the holiday spirit by giving of your time and efforts to those less fortunate might increase your connection to others and give you greater perspective and inner peace.
As the pageantry of this festive season unfolds, no matter what you decide to do, know that you can control the script of your celebrations -- and that holiday loneliness need not play a role at all.
Jeanette Leardi is an instructor of journaling, memoir-writing, personal mythmaking and storytelling. A longtime freelance writer and editor, her publishing experiences also include staff positions at Newsweek, Life, People and Conde Nast Traveler magazines, and The Charlotte Observer. Visit her at jeanetteleardi.com.