This time of year, our sentiments are filled with wishes of joy, happiness, love, and light. Yet, for so many people, the holiday season is not the picture of warm serenity we see printed on our greeting cards. In fact, a majority of people name winter as the most stressful season of the year. Last year, a survey found that 42 percent of employees feel the most stress at work around the Christmas holiday. Other polls have further found December to be the most stressful month for women and for couples.
It's easy to list the added pressures of December, which range from financial strains and stresses to anxiety sparked by seeing family (or guilt induced by not seeing family). It's easy to dismiss the ornamental sparkle of all the tree lights and wrapping paper as superficial, but the truth is the holidays have a more much more profound effect on our spirit than we imagine. December often starts with a list of hopes for joyful celebration and ends with a list of resolutions we hope to achieve in the next year. This sets a stage for a lot of self-evaluation and, depending on what side of ourselves we're on, can lead to our "critical inner voices" undermining our self-esteem.
Our critical inner voice represents a hostile and negative attitude we all have toward ourselves. If we feel especially lonely over the holidays, it's that voice that whispers, "All alone again. What a loser. You'll never find anyone who loves you." When we go to a party, it tells us, "You're not attractive. Who are you kidding? Why even try?" When we think about our resolutions, it dictates, "Lose that belly fat, be less obnoxious, stop bothering people with your problems, and just fit in!"
When we add the stress of entering into old family dynamics over the holidays, this voice can certainly get louder. "You never buy the right thing for her. You always disappoint her." "Great, now you have to explain for the third year in a row why you didn't get promoted." "You're an embarrassment to your family." Our critical inner voice is shaped out of attitudes and behaviors that we were exposed to and were directed toward us in our early lives. Therefore, entering back into an old family setting can spark a lot of mixed emotions, regardless of what's going on in the present. Add to that any hint of family drama, and our inner critic will be off and running.
It's important to remember that this voice is not something nice, like our intuition or our conscience. It represents a point of view that is truly against us and our best interests, and it can steer us to self-limiting and self-destructive behavior. "Have another drink," it whispers when we're feeling low. "You can't handle this stress without one." That same voice is there to punish us when we act on those directives. "Wow, you messed up again. You're so pathetic!"
Because the critical inner voice is tricky and can attack us from any angle, the best thing we can do for ourselves is to be aware of when it arises, to notice when our thinking starts to shift and we begin to feel turned on ourselves. Identifying and labeling this voice as an enemy as opposed to our real point of view can mean the difference between staying strong in our sense of who we are and plummeting into self-hatred. If we notice that we're starting to evaluate or sum ourselves up, we can interrupt this pattern of thinking and reject its veracity.
In any period of transition and uncertainty, it's essential to practice a compassionate attitude toward ourselves and others. With that in mind, here are some principles that can help all of us have a more peaceful holiday season in which we feel most ourselves and are the least at the mercy of our inner critic:
• Think about what makes you feel good. The holidays may be a time to think about others, but if we lose ourselves in the process, we're much less likely to really connect with others and show up as who we want to be. As we drive through the snow to an office party or bake that extra cake for our kids' recital, it's important to check in with how we're feeling. We shouldn't forget to seek joy in the aspects of what we do that matter to us. A lot of that may come from what we offer others, but it's also important to find time for the things that light us up: having coffee with our partner in the morning, calling our best friend for a half hour to talk personally, taking a run in the afternoon. How we feel will affect those around us, so taking care of ourselves is not a selfish act.
• Let go of the guilt. No matter what we do wrong or right, many of us tend to feel guilt over our choices. If, for example, you choose not to spend the money to go home this winter, you may have "voices" like, "You don't appreciate your family. You're so selfish and mean!" If you do travel home, you'll be plagued by thoughts like, "How could you be so frivolous? No one wants you here anyway." Our critical inner voice will always steer us toward feeling guilty, but we should aim to be adult and own the choices we make and the reasons we make them.
• Spend time with your family of choice. Families come in many forms. The friends we choose are as much family as anyone we're related to. If this is the season to spend time with people we love and value, then we should honor the unique individuals who make up our family of choice. These are the people who make us feel most ourselves, who help us feel comfortable in our skin, who are easy to laugh with and talk to about real things going on in our lives. Carve out time to connect with these people. Nothing drowns out the sound of our inner critic than the voices of our good friends.
• Enjoy giving and receiving. I've written a lot about the countless benefits of generosity. For people who feel down during the holidays, one of the best past times can be to volunteer. Many of us can get lost in the flurry of cooking, shopping, and planning, but it's important to slow down and enjoy acts of generosity. Whether it's offering a gift or just our time, we should strive to be present for a real, honest, and personal interaction. That means being equally comfortable with receiving a gift or acknowledgment as with giving one. These are many ``opportunities for authentic moments of connection and gratitude. If we let them pass by, we fail to fully experience these affections or let them sink in. Again, these real, human experiences can be an antidote to our critical inner voice.
As we close out 2016, we can all make one final resolution that isn't about evaluating and fixing ourselves or honing in on our flaws. Instead, we can make an effort to loosen the reigns of our critical inner voice, to live with fewer internal limits and with more self-compassion. In January, I'll teach the Webinar "Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice." I enjoy teaching this course at the start of the year, because I see how harshly people judge themselves in trying to achieve fresh goals or make real change. No matter where our path is taking us or what we hope to achieve, the critical inner voice can only hinder us on our journey. With enough struggles that plague us all as human beings, may 2017 be a year when you can feel free to be yourself and live free of your critical inner voice.
Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the Webinar, "Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice."