Loneliness During the Holidays

The holidays can be a time of immense sadness, heartache and loneliness for some people – and that’s okay. How do you make it through the holidays when you don’t feel full of joy?

It’s December, which means the jingles are jingling, the carolers are caroling, and the “holiday spirit” is in the air. For some, this can be a time of joy, love and connection. For others, this can be a time of immense sadness, heartache and loneliness.

I know all too well both extreme ends of this spectrum. On one hand, this time of year brings me closer to a sense of deep connection with my family and friends, and pushes me to be more giving and kind to others. At the same time, I miss family who live out of town, I long for loved ones who passed away, and I experience nostalgia of a pastime that is no longer.

The holiday cheer that our culture puts on a pedestal doesn’t make these moments of loneliness any better. Joy, love and everlasting happiness are shoved down our throats so forcefully, it can feel like we’re broken if we don’t feel these emotions at every moment of the season. Happiness sells, and so it’s marketed as goods and services that we must buy and own.

Unfortunately, this marketing gives the impression that to be a normal, everyday human, we must act like a Who from Whoville – smiling, singing and dancing with overwhelming happiness. The problem is, as humans, sometimes we actually feel like the Grinch – castaway to the mountains, doomed to only watch as everyone else gets to experience love and connection but us.

My takeaway from the classic Dr. Seuss story is these two emotional experiences – joy (Whoville) and loneliness (The Grinch) – do not need to live separately. Eventually, rather than trying to fight off The Grinch, Whoville was willing to accept him as part of their holiday experience. Similarly, you can simultaneously love the holiday, take part in the festivities, and at the exact same time, feel sadness, grief, stress and loneliness.

It’s okay if you don’t “live up” to the holiday hype. You are allowed to feel exactly what you feel, without exception. If you are feeling lonely, rather than trying to make yourself feel better, try treating the feeling the same way Whoville treated The Grinch at the end of the story – open yourself up to loneliness and continue to do what matters most to you during the season.

Remember, feeling lonely and being alone is not the same thing. In fact, feeling lonely is an indicator that connecting with others is something that matters to you. If that’s the case, let loneliness be the kind reminder to reach out to friends, family, partners, or even strangers. Go to that holiday party, or create one of your own, and take loneliness with you like The Unwelcome Party Guest.

This holiday season, don’t buy into the myth that you must be happy to be normal. You also don’t have to banish yourself into reclusion if you feel down or lonely. When you feel joy, great! Do all of those things you love to do when you feel happy!

And, when you feel lonely – that’s okay too. Notice, you can still do all of the things you love to do, even when you feel lonely.

Surviving Being a Survivor of Suicide

I wish this wasn’t a topic to write about. Alleviating human suffering is at the core of my profession, and yet everyday there are people who can no longer bear their darkness and take their own lives. In their wake, are the close friends and family who did their very best to help. Unfortunately, these survivors of suicide could not control their loved one’s despair anymore than the person in despair could. And so they are left with loss.

If you are a survivor reading this, you should know that you are not alone in your pain, and the way that you are feeling is perfectly okay. There is no wrong way to feel – there is only feeling, itself.

Emotions are not dictated by logic or reason. Don’t pay attention to the myth that grief follows strict, fixated, rigid, or linear stages. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel, however it feels, and whenever you feel it. It’s okay not to be okay.

Surviving the Holidays

Holidays can be really tough times for survivors, especially if their loved one died in these months. It doesn’t help that our culture forces cheer and joy down our throats, even when we feel at our darkest. It can make the shame, guilt and loneliness even worse.

Below are some tips for how to get through the holidays, or any other really difficult time. Keep in mind, these tips may or may not make you feel better. My goal is not necessarily to change the way you feel – remember, it’s okay not to be okay – rather, my hope in providing these tips is for survivors to find meaning in life, even where there is pain.     

  • You have the freedom to do whatever you choose to do around the holidays – Whether it’s time with friends and family or time to yourself
    • If you would like to be spending more time with family/friends but find it hard to reach out, try this:
      • Can you remember a time, between the times of darkness, when your loved one lived their life to the fullest? What did they stand for in those moments?
      • With this version of your loved one in mind, what do you think they would say to in your time of sadness?
      • What would they say about your struggle to be with family?
  • Self-care and self-compassion
    • If you choose to stay away from family for self-care, that’s okay too. There is no wrong way to react. In this case, a little self-care can go a long way. Here are some ways to find self-care:
      • Do your favorite activity, even if it’s a guilty pleasure. It’s okay not to be okay and it’s okay to be okay, even if it’s just for a little while.
      • Go to that one place you and your loved one always went. It might make you cry, but it might make you smile at the exact same time.
      • Call your favorite person: Friend, family, partner, that one person you really care about but who you haven’t talked to in forever. Talk, laugh, and be heard.
      • Reach out to support groups. They understand the pain, even if they can’t understand your pain. You can find a group in the Tampa Bay area here.
      • View our list of resources here.
      • Exercise: Walk, bike, swim, run, jump, pull, push, whatever exercise you love to do.
    • Let yourself cry. Maybe you have been crying already, but have you just let yourself cry? No holding back, no pushing down, and no need to be strong. Let yourself go and hold yourself tight.
  • These tips are in no way exhaustive. Find what works for you and do that thing.

The takeaway message here is this: Be kind to yourself in your grief, when you cry, when you smile, and when you remember. If you find self-kindness too difficult, bring to mind your loved one lost. If they were right there, next to you, would they shame you? Would they scold you? Or would they hug you? Would they offer kind, gentle, and loving words? Treat yourself as your loved one would treat you when they were at their absolute best. And remember, it’s okay not to be okay.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call 211, text HOME to 741741, or start a chat with someone online.

Don’t Talk About It

When you’re a man dealing with emotional pain, you know the rules: Keep it to yourself, don’t bother anyone with it, and ride it out. The “it” I’m talking about is stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, fear of rejection, or a deep sense of emptiness. If you were raised to “be a man” in western culture, you are very familiar with the message: Don’t talk about it. 

The “Don’t talk about it” message might be the clearest for most men struggling with emotional pain but there are a few other messages underlying this one. For example, many men believe expressions of stoicism (which is really just lack of emotional expression), anger, frustration, and irritation are signs of a strong and powerful man, whereas expressions of sadness, loneliness, fear, anxiety, or any other painful emotion is a sign of weakness.

Another underlying message that might sit in the dark corners of a man’s mind include, “If I am weak, I will not be seen as good enough.” The kicker is, even acknowledging these messages can be viewed as a sign of weakness. So, they get buried but not forgotten. They tunnel so deep within the inner workings of men’s minds that they become entangled around his sense of identity.

However, the tiring attempts to suppress “weak” emotions come at a high cost. Men who are reluctant to express a wider range of emotions tend to have higher rates of behavioral health problems compared to men who are more expressive. This means men who do their best to not feel painful emotions are at higher risk of feeling painful emotions. This ironic twist can (and often does) turn into a vicious cycle, eventually leading to substance use, depression, and suicide. One study found that adolescents who restricted their emotions were eleven times more likely to show symptoms of depression, three times more likely to have serious suicidal thoughts, and twice as likely to attempt suicide. 

So, if you are a man, I challenge you to take a moment to explore the worth of emotional restriction. When you don’t talk about the things that bother you, notice if it brings you closer or further away from the people you care about. If you shove away the inner voice begging for warmth and compassion, does it make you feel better or worse? The message to be a strong and capable man is enticing and ever-present. It promises you will be worthy, accepted, and adored. But what if this narrative isn’t working the way it’s supposed to, and your very attempts at being strong is breaking you down? In those moments, can you find strength in the willingness to be weak?

The S.M.A.R.T. Way to Achieve Life Goals

If you have ever set a goal, you know how frustrating it can be to work toward it. Whether it’s saving money, losing weight, eating healthier, or spending more time with friends and family, we all hit roadblocks. As the adage goes, sometimes it seems like you’re taking one step forward and two steps back. It doesn’t help when our minds tend to judge and criticize us when we don’t immediately live up to our own expectations. This can quickly lead to losing motivation and avoiding the self-criticism by avoiding the goal.

So, what’s going on and what do we do about it? Research shows people generally have difficulty achieving goals when they are personally meaninglesslong-term, and vague. For example, I want to save more money, lose more weight, spend more time with family/friends, etc. These are all wonderful goals but the words “more” and “less” make it difficult, if not impossible, to know when we reach our goals. We could be caught forever working toward these goals without ever knowing if we reached them.

Start by spending time figuring out what’s at the heart of these goals. Answering this deeply meaningful question enriches the experience and increases motivation in the face of adversity. Once you determine the “why” of your goal, you can start on the “how.” One of the most underutilized but most effective ways to work toward a goal is to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely, or SMART. Using the SMART acronym for goal-setting gives you a set of workable guidelines to follow

You can begin your SMART goal by simply adding numbers. Using the examples from above, I want to save $100, eat 1 instead of 2 slices of pizza, complete 10 pushups, lose 5 pounds, or spend 2 hours with my family. Giving numbers to goals makes them more Specific, Measurable, and Attainable. Let’s say you want to save $100. The Specificity of the goal is the numbered dollar amount ($100), instead of the vague “more money.” This is also Measurable because you can track your progress by how much you are saving along the way. Giving a number to your goal also makes the goal Attainable rather than abstract: You know you met your goal when you have $100.

Importantly, we must also make sure saving $100 can be Realistically accomplished in a Timely fashion. Someone who makes $100,000 a year can more realistically save $100 in a shorter amount of time compared to someone making $10,000 a year. For this example, let’s say it is realistic for you to save $100 in 3 months. Now we have a SMART goal: Save $100 in 3 months. Then, you can adjust the goal to fit your personal definitions of Realistic and Timely. You can also adjust it to meet more short-term goals: $100 in 3 months equals about $1.10 per day. You can also adjust it to meet long-term goals: $100 in 3 months equals $200 in 6 months, $400 in one year, etc.

Setting SMART goals helps to maintain your motivation and increases the likelihood you will achieve your short- and long-term goals. However, if you are like everyone else, you are bound to slip up at some point. When you do slip up, notice the urge to completely give up on your goals and, at the exact same time, the opportunity to start on your SMART goal again, picking up wherever you left off. See if you can notice this, not as a matter of fact, but as a matter of personal experience.