Wednesday 12 December 2018

Beat the blues by learning to live with what life has given you

The sooner we lose the notion of the perfect Christmas, the sooner we can relax and enjoy it, writes Stella O'Malley

A Christmas tree and stocking near a fireplace (Tom Merton/Getty Images)
A Christmas tree and stocking near a fireplace (Tom Merton/Getty Images)
Stella O'Malley

Stella O'Malley

We are in the thick of it now; the grand event that has been consuming our lives for the last couple of months is finally here. But how exactly are we supposed to get through Christmas without collectively losing our marbles?

Unfortunately, everywhere we go we're being sold a foolish dream about the perfect Insta-Christmas. According to the ads, the children will play merrily with their dream-come-true toys, carols will play softly in the background, with perhaps a crackling fire and sumptuous smells emanating from the kitchen and the adults will gaze fondly upon the scene as the magic of Christmas unfolds right before their eyes.

Of course it won't be like that at all - all this heightened emotion and overblown expectation tends to lead to belligerent showdowns as discontented adults with a few drinks taken suddenly become determined to give others the unvarnished truth for a change. These emotional outbursts are seldom productive, and usually upsetting, and they tend to leave most of us feeling like little orphans pressing our faces up to the window of everyone else's perfect Christmas, vividly evident on social media.

It's not true though - none of us are having a "perfect Christmas". Many people might have a happy Christmas or a fun-filled Christmas, but it won't be "perfect" and the sooner we lose the notion of the unachievable perfect Christmas, the sooner we can relax and enjoy the messy, flawed Christmas that is actually available to us.

The insane version of Christmas - that is, the perfect Christmas - often nurtures the victim mentality in many people, where everyone ends up thinking that the fun is somewhere else. And yet the fun is here, right now, wherever you are; as the poet Derek Mahon wisely reminds us, "Don't waste your time… the days are more fun than the years which pass us by while we discuss them."

I once worked with a client, who I'll call "Sile", who was seeing me for counselling because she felt her anxiety and perfectionism were leading to feelings of joylessness and depression. Anxious perfectionists tend to put a lot of time into planning and so Sile was fully prepared for Christmas when it arrived; the house was immaculate, the decorations were charming, the gifts were tasteful and the menu for the day was meticulously planned. Nothing could go wrong.

But, of course, something went wrong. Because, as anyone over the age of about 25 knows, something always goes wrong.

What happened on Christmas day in Sile's house was that her husband had a slight mishap with cooking times and so the vegetables were badly overdone. Everyone else in the family enjoyed the day, despite the vegetables, but Sile spent most of the day in turmoil, furious that her husband was such a half-witted fool that he had made a mess of the one job that he had to do. "He had one job - one job - and he made a pig's ear of it," she silently fumed all through the dinner. All that effort, all that planning and energy, all ruined because, as Sile saw it, it was apparently beyond her husband's capabilities to time the vegetables properly. Christmas was ruined for Sile as she came to the conclusion that her husband was evidently a blithering idiot and it was a wonder that she had never noticed it before.

Yet, when Sile and I met in early January, it had already dawned on Sile that it was she, and not her husband who had ruined Christmas, "I just couldn't let it go," she said regretfully, "I was moody all evening, full of barbed remarks and cranky jokes. I was a crosspatch and my mood ruined the atmosphere for the household. What on earth was I thinking?" she exclaimed.

We can roll our eyes all we want and pretend to ourselves that we would never throw a fit over burnt vegetables because we are nice and normal and so we keep perspective on Christmas Day. Well, I'm sure it's very satisfying to think like that but I'm afraid the statistics don't bear it out - most of us have heightened emotions over Christmas; indeed, most of us overreact at Christmas time in a way that we wouldn't at any other time of the year and, in truth, most of us go a bit mad at Christmas.

Sile, as fallible as the rest of us, happened to fall into the rabbit-hole of rigid thinking. This rigid approach meant that for Sile the dinner, the decorations, the presents, indeed pretty much everything on the big day had to be just so, and if it wasn't then it was all a big disaster and Christmas was ruined. Today, all over the country, men, women and children are buying into this crazy myth that everything has to be right at Christmas, or else it's all wrong. But these expectations tend to lead us to bitter resentment because life is filled with massive, gaping flaws.

Mental Health Ireland tells us that one in four of us will experience serious challenges to our mental health at some stage in our lives and those of us who are feeling happy and relatively content should try to remember that some of our friends and family are living lives of quiet desperation and need some compassion and kindness. When it comes to loneliness, depression and serious mental health problems, compassion and connection are everything and, with a little human kindness, with a bit of compassion, even the unhappiest soul in the world can feel better. Everything is easier so long as we have some sense of connection with other human beings.

There will be many people all over Ireland who will go through Christmas without seeing a soul, but it is vitally important for these people to try to get out and meet others - no matter how hard it is. Feeling connected with other people is what will save most people from suicide this year and this is why the importance of connection cannot be overestimated.

Although it might sound ironic or unlikely, volunteering to help the homeless this Christmas can be very helpful for those of us who feel sad or lonely. Research has shown again and again that when we help others we regain our sense of belonging and connection with humanity and it does us a world of good. So, if you are feeling mentally fragile this Christmas, consider volunteering to help the homeless. Get out of the house. The camaraderie and goodwill that can be found in soup kitchens and homeless shelters often far surpass the bitter hostility bubbling to the surface in many immaculate middle-class homes around the country.

Some people who are addicted to the demon drink will also be currently going through private agonies as they wonder whether they deserve a drink on Christmas day or will it ruin everything; deep down they know full well that the answer is, yes, a drink will probably ruin everything. Others will spend the day silently incensed that they were unlucky enough to be burdened by alcoholism while everyone else seems to be able to drink all around them with no trouble at all.

Of course life is utterly unfair. Some people seem to merrily skip through life while others are given a much heavier load to bear. But what can we do but try to knock whatever joy we can out of this crazy life?

The influential psychotherapist, Dr Elvin Semrad, nailed it when he observed that there are three choices in life; "kill yourself, go crazy or learn to live with what you have in life" as it highlights that learning to accept the cards you've been given is ultimately the royal road to happiness. If we can accept the challenges to our mental health and well-being, if we can roll with the falling down decorations, the overcooked dinner and the general madness of our difficult relatives, it is only then we can enjoy the Christmas we have and forget all about the Christmas that we dreamed about.

Stella O'Malley is a psychotherapist, public speaker and author of Bully-Proof Kids and Cotton Wool Kids.

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