My therapist has an incredible memory. She reminded me I always get like this, this time of year. When everyone is supposed to be wearing sparkly shoes, and going to office parties and planning idyllic holidays at the beach, the "Coke ad" time of year, I tend to feel fragmented, squirmy, anxious and inadequate.
Or maybe I notice it more now because I'm so happy most of the time. I have no debilitating emotional conflicts at the moment. I just consulted my "Good things log", an occasional series in my journal, and It was full up with things to be grateful for. Made vegetarian lasagne. Played 500. Watched Stranger Things with the kids. Kids are happy at school. I have rose-tinted glasses. I got an A+ for my psychotherapy essay. I'm getting to work with cool collaborators on a TV script. In fact, I am surrounded by love and creativity and music and mess and little white polystyrene balls. (This week's tip: if you get a child a beanbag for her birthday and your kids ask may they climb in and "swim" in the polystyrene balls? Say No.)
So why do I still feel like running a mile when I see real fake snow?
Christmas always seems to make me feel I'm standing a little to the side of myself, looking at the life I have, and thinking about the one I don't. Social media can make that sense of having your nose pressed up against the glass of someone else's party even worse.
The weird thing is that I don't even want to go to any of those parties with sponsors and brittle small talk. I'd rather go home and have a nap. (The old person's version of pre-loading).
But maybe there are several strands of anxiety all knotted up in this tangle of summer ennui. Christmas can be a reminder of loss and grief, divorce, endings, ageing. There is the pressure that you want it to be perfect for your kids, for your family. Insert montage of wholesome families doing standup paddleboarding and playing backyard cricket here. (Unless like me, you prefer rainy days because you can sit inside and read without feeling guilty).
And we mustn't forget the House & Garden show-offy pressure to be a domestic goddess, made worse by photogenic cooking writers who insist what they're suggesting are "no-fuss" recipes, so you feel even worse when even with a lot of fuss, you can't even manage those.
But who cares whether Christmas is not insta-worthy? I don't want more stuff. I don't want a shinier lifestyle or a personal brand. So here are my "no-fuss" suggestions for resisting going down the rabbit hole of seasonal dread this December.
You hear a lot about empathy in the sense of feeling others' pain. But I am a big fan of a less-talked of kind of empathy called positive empathy. Positive empathy means being able to feel other people's happiness and success. Eg. I will like your cocktail drinking holiday pics and feel happy for you. And go back to reading my book without internalising any implied criticism.
Stop trying to be "good" and choose to be genuine instead
Yes there are tedious things you absolutely must do, but not many of them. So you can say no to all the others. Pull a sickie if you really can't face crowds and forced jollity. Consider this column an official permission slip if you need one.
Recognise this time of year can be hard
Especially if you have what therapist Margaret Warner calls a "fragile process", which means you tend to experience core issues at very high or low levels of intensity. Sometimes just acknowledging this to yourself, instead of castigating yourself for not enjoying the supposedly fizziest time of year, can allow you to hold together the good with the bad, and be more gentle with yourself.
Instead of trying to make Christmas perfect, consider this an opportunity for you and your children to learn about "object constancy". It's a dumb name, but a very useful concept. It's the psychological term for being able to maintain your positive feelings for a person (including yourself) while you are also feeling frustrated, hurt, angry or disappointed by the person. It means letting go of expectations and just accepting what is. It's an important lesson kids need to learn too. For example when they get a present that doesn't have a silicon chip in it.
Let Christmas "find" you
Be open to seeing the earthy, authentic soulful joy where it is, not where you decide it will be. Maybe some magic will find you when you least expect it. Whether you have your sparkly shoes on or not.