Lots of people get depressed around the holidays.
It sucks, especially when the commercials make it look like everyone else is having a good time.
Often, when we get depressed, it’s because old material is coming up. That’s therapist-speak for painful early childhood experiences.
Lau Tzu, the famous ancient Chinese philosopher said, “If you are depressed you are living the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future.” I think there’s often truth to that.
By the way, he also said, “If you are at peace you are living in the present.” Smart guy.
Most people don’t like to consider that the painful experiences they are having today can be linked to experiences they had when they were kids.
“That was ages ago. It happened, I’m over it.”
“I’m independent and fully grown. I have no need for a Mommy or Daddy.”
Well, can we go back in time for just a moment to understand why we might still be impacted by these early experiences?
Please take a few seconds to remember what it was really like to be five or six years old. Do any of the following sound familiar?
I was so excited when Dad came home from the office.
Heaven was lying in bed with my parents on Sunday mornings.
I thought my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world.
My dad bought that toy from the airport and I kept it for 20 years.
I’ll never forget when Mom or Dad played that game with me.
The truth is, no one loves as intensely as children. You’ve noticed that your little nieces and nephews cling to you even though you’ve only met them a few times.
They love fiercely, with no holding back.
That love is a very powerful emotional experience. It never leaves us. That’s why we feel bonded to our parents even if we don’t connect so well to them as adults.
What Goes Wrong?
In many families, that early intense love we feel for mommy or daddy gets disrupted. Mom starts drinking and gets distant. Or Dad gets overwhelmed at work and we rarely see him. Or Mom gets completely distracted with our troublesome brother.
Or our parents divorce and we only see one parent on holidays and in the summer.
In other words, we get dropped. It’s like that experience of being dumped when we are dating. Everyone hates that.
It sounds weird to say it, but maybe your mother or father broke your heart.
Even if your parents weren’t so great for much of your childhood, if you had just a taste of that passionate five-year-old love, you end up longing for its return. Even if today you know intellectually that you’ll never get that love from them, and that most of you doesn’t even want it anymore, the longing is still there.
And that longing can get triggered by idealized family holidays like Christmas or Hanukah.
I get it—you don’t need a mommy or a daddy anymore. But if you had these early experiences of idealizing your parents, and later they let you down, those feelings are within you.
And if you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, the odds that at some point you were emotionally dropped by your parents are much higher.
So What Do I Do About It?
That’s a great question and you won’t like the answer.
You acknowledge, feel it, and validate it. To yourself.
The depression comes from not feeling it. For most of us, depression literally means depressing a feeling. Depression can last for days or weeks, but the underlying feeling of sadness or anger comes and goes quickly when you actually feel it.*
It’s hard to deeply validate that longing for a parent because we feel we “should” be over it. We minimize the experience and therefore it doesn’t get our compassion or attention. It feels babyish and self-indulgent to acknowledge it more deeply. We tell ourselves that other people had it worse, so let’s stop whining and toughen up.
The trouble is, devaluing our life experience doesn’t alleviate the depression. It just extends it.
I get it — it’s annoying. No one wants to feel those feelings.
Yet each time we really acknowledge the underlying more vulnerable feelings, the depression or sadness begins to lift. Intellectually acknowledging it helps a little. But really feeling it in our hearts is where the permanent change occurs. That’s when we will no longer get depressed during the holidays.
*Please note that this article is about the kind of mild depression that most people feel a few times per year, for a couple of days or a couple of weeks. There are other kinds of depression, such as depression due to the death of a loved one, or depression due to chemicals in the brain, or from other internal conflicts that can last longer, be more intense, and are not the subject of this blog post.
If your depression gets to the point where you have trouble getting out of bed, getting to work, or eating, then it is time to get some immediate professional help.