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  • Writer's pictureSara Fender

Let's Survive (or even thrive) This Holiday Season

Originally written and posted for His Heart Foundation at

So, here it is 2020 and the holiday season is upon us. Joy, wonder, peace? Despair, grief, anxiety? Maybe all the above. Let us highlight a few things we can do to survive [or even thrive] this holiday season.

“It is what it is.” There is a premise in some theories of counseling that poses that much of our suffering comes from how we react to difficult events in our lives. To lessen our suffering, we can aim to acknowledge what is without getting wrapped up in criticism or judgment towards ourselves or others. This is usually labeled as acceptance.

Acceptance does not mean that we agree with or welcome the difficulty. Rather, it means that we stop trying to change what has happened. When we fight a reality we cannot change, we experience more stress, anxiety, anger, and despair as a result.

How can we practice acceptance? We notice what we are feeling, we name our emotions, we do our best to observe our emotions without judgement, and we allow ourselves to express our emotions in safe and healthy ways. Not sure how to do this? Emotions lists, emotions trackers, and emotional expression resources can be found through a simple internet search.

Self-Compassion. We want to meet and treat ourselves by the same measure that we meet and treat our closest loved ones. The truth is, most of us are harder on ourselves than anyone else in our lives. We hold ourselves to a higher standard and talk to ourselves in ways that can be horribly hurtful, judgmental, and unforgiving.

What does self-compassion look like?

1. Kindness and non-judgment (watch the “should have, could have, if only, how could I,” talk here).

2. Giving ourselves a break for being human (watch out for beating yourself up, holding onto guilt after reconciling a mistake or some “bad” behavior, replaying the past in your mind, thinking you are the only one who messes up).

3. Practicing acceptance and mindfulness (watch getting caught up in emotions or thought spirals, trying to change what has happened, feeling blame and shame).

Want to learn more about self-compassion and how to practice it?

Benefit of the Doubt. When we have increased stressors in our lives, interacting with one another can become harder. How can we improve our interactions with people? Many times, we assume we know what other people’s intentions are, and we automatically assume negative intent. Giving people the benefit of the doubt changes our internal dialogue about people’s intentions. Instead of a negative assumption, we can choose to assume good intent.

No matter what the truth is about another person’s behavior, giving others the benefit of the doubt can improve your life. I have had more times than I can count when choosing to think the best about someone is enough to help me move forward and focus on the things that really matter to me in my life. I really do not want to spend my day thinking about how terrible I think most people are because someone cut me off on the freeway. Gaining a sense of empowerment over our thinking helps us become more flexible in our thinking patterns and our emotional responses.

Expectations. Holiday traditions will look different for many of us this year. Take some time to assess what you are hoping for. If you discover that your expectations are not realistic or practical under the circumstances, consider how you might adjust them. We can feel pain for what is missing this year, but also experience some level of joy and content for what is this year.

1. What can you control and what do you have no control over?

2. Give yourself permission to release the belief that “holidays have to be this way.”

3. Brainstorm new ways in which you can celebrate the holiday season.

4. Find ways to incorporate traditions in adapted and creative ways.

5. Set a goal to learn something from the difficulty this holiday season.

6. How can you love or serve others? Focusing on others is often an anecdote to pain.

Gratitude. You may roll your eyes (or want to) at yet another reminder about practicing gratitude in this year and in this season. The bottom line is, though, gratitude works. It literally changes your brain [look up the neuroscience of gratitude].

Practicing gratitude is not intended make the hard stuff go away; the point is to be able to also see the things that are “not hard.” Gratitude shows us that we can feel more than the difficult emotions we are experiencing, even if it is momentary. Gratitude helps us slow down and live in the present moment.

There are a vast number of approaches to gratitude. One of the simplest ways to combat chronic stress, depression, and anxiety is a mindful gratitude practice. We look for small moments that bring us joy, relief, beauty, content, and we pause to notice the moments. See the way the clouds looked so beautiful in that moment? See how the cashier looked so exhausted and you said something that made her feel seen and appreciated? Feel how that fresh cup of coffee warmed your chilly hands? Engaging your senses grounds you in the present moment and helps you see a more balanced view of reality.


May we all pursue more acceptance, more flexibility, more compassion, more benefit of the doubt, and more gratitude in our lives this holiday season. May you be surprised at the wonder that is waiting to be found in your life and in the world around you.


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