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When the Holidays Aren't Happy

The holidays can be like a riptide of sadness, the more you fight the currents of sadness, the more you are overcome by them. You aren't a Grinch or a Scrooge if constant reminders of the "happy" season make you sad.
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Happy Thanksgiving! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

What can be upsetting about these holiday greetings? It's not about the War on Christmas or insensitivity to other cultures. Sometimes it's about the Happy and the Merry.

For many people, the holidays can be some of the unhappiest times of the year, a feeling that is exacerbated by continual pressure to be happy and merry. Grinch-like responses such as, "There's nothing happy for me about the holidays" are not considered socially appropriate. On the other hand, smiling and playing along can lead to what I call Impostor Syndrome. You put on your I'm OK mask and think to yourself, "Everyone is happy but me. Why can't I be happy, too. I'll put on my happy mask and pretend to fit in."

For people who have suffered trauma, the holidays can be especially hard. Stephanie Dailey, a member of the American Counseling Association and assistant professor of psychology and behavioral sciences at Argosy University, explained to me, "The bottom line is that for people who have experienced a traumatic event, the holiday season can be similar to anniversary reminders. These times may bring up negative feelings, enhance current trauma symptoms, and additional stress."

Al Colvin shared his sense of isolation to me, "There's really no appreciation for the invisible person in the room. The person that survived so much that no one can see or relate to. There's loneliness even though you are constantly surrounded by loud people and none of them understands, so you are really on the island alone."

Holidays can also trigger interpersonal stressors in environments that might normally feel safe. Patrick Riley, a former paramedic for a major urban EMS service, described to me one of his holiday experiences, set off by the stress of family "I was so ridiculously out of my comfort zone, in surroundings that, though they had become familiar by that point, still felt unsafe in that weird injured way we often feel."

For victims of child sexual abuse, the holidays are a reminder of innocence lost. "Kids should have the opportunity to be innocent," one survivor said. "Kids should be able to believe in the magic of Christmas. Kids should never be afraid of adults."

Making matters worse, striving for happiness, paradoxically, can trigger glumness. The more focus is placed on happiness, the harder it is to be happy. The philosopher John Stuart Mill observed in his autobiography, "Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so."

Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl had a similar theory about happiness, writing in Man's Search for Meaning, "Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it."

The holidays can be like a riptide of sadness, the more you fight the currents of sadness, the more you are overcome by them. You aren't a Grinch or a Scrooge if constant reminders of the "happy" season make you sad.

You also aren't alone.