The Holidays and Cognitive Dissonance

Six Ways to Survive until January 2nd

And so it begins. On my Twitter feed this morning was the requisite pushing and shoving Black Friday videos. I’m glad I was home. Under the covers. Away from the crazy people.  Holidays cause cognitive dissonance in most of us. Yet, many of us feel compelled to go along to get along with that which causes us stress. It can be psychologically debilitating.

Edith Wharton once said that if we’d stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time. I think of that quote every holiday season.  Every year retailers push “the holidays” on us earlier and earlier.

In the past few years I have taken to walking out of stores where Christmas decorations are up before Thanksgiving.  My local supermarket put them up after Labor Day this year and I’ve not been back.  I don’t know if I will ever shop there again.  It’s insane and needs to stop.  Not all of us are fans of the holidays.  Not all of us celebrate them and many of us have a horrifically terrible time.  The longer they stretch out “the season,” the more they stretch out our misery. To them, it’s about the dollar.  To me, it’s about my heart. If they don’t care about my heart, they don’t get my dollar.  Simple economics.

The crazy “war on Christmas” claims will start.  Anything that is as “in your face” as holiday decorations, holiday sales, the music and the incessant specials is not losing any war and if it isn’t, it should be. There.  I said it.  Asking to take it down a notch and recognize that not everyone celebrates Christmas isn’t a war.  It’s respect.  Christmas is out of control and anything that is out of control, cannot continue unabated.  The commercialization of Christmas pushes people into gifts they cannot afford and the so-called spirit of the holiday is completely gone. The entire “war on Christmas” debate is designed to shut up the people who have Christmas burnout before they even sit down to turkey and cranberry sauce.

Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort caused when you hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values at the same time. Humans strive for internal consistency and when you experience inconsistency, or dissonance, you avoid situations and information likely to increase that inconsistency.  In other words, you seek refuge from that which causes stress or dissonance and when you can’t find that refuge, your stress level increases.

The whole “holiday” onslaught causes dissonance for many people, even those who sign onto it and claim to love the holidays.  The reason?  Because trampling people on Black Friday does not comport with the “peace on Earth, good will to all” message. How can we say this is a magical time when the magic involves surviving a shopping trip?

For others who are in emotional pain, who have experienced a loss this year, and who are still in process, the relentless holiday merriment offends their need for quiet introspection. The “this is the time of year to be with the ones you love” reminds them that their loved one is not around. For people grieving and trying to get “right” with their loss, the holidays provide a continuous assault that says, “You’re alone!” Even though the image of happy families and Yuletide greetings is a bunch of nonsense, when you’re alone, it increases your feeling of loneliness.

There are still others who don’t celebrate the holidays or don’t feel like celebrating this year and there is no escape from it. It’s hard to feel that the holidays are “special” when even though those who celebrate can feel stressed, hurried, broke and on edge, and those who don’t celebrate are excluded from “the most wonderful time of the year” and told they are somehow causing a war on Christmas when they object to the endless and needless reminders of the whole show.

When we are being forced to swallow the concept of special and magical and we’re not feeling special or magical, we feel two different things which causes cognitive dissonance and adds to our stress. What is wrong with me?  If I’m not happy now, when will I be happy?  If everyone else is thrilled that it’s Christmas time, what is wrong with me that I just want it over with?  The blanket of advertisements, crowded stores and incessant music push someone else’s idea of happiness on us.  When that happens, we experience cognitive dissonance.

Happy is not something we are just because the almighty “they” tells us to be.  Happiness comes from having a pretty good time all of the time by knowing how to accept life on life’s terms.  Happiness is a hard thing to achieve on a day-to-day basis when nothing is going on, but almost impossible to sustain over what used to be a 6-week period and now seems to have morphed into a 10-week or longer period. To push that kind of expectation on people for that many weeks is an emotional and mental stressor, plain and simple.  Not just for those who are having issues with the holidays, but even for those who welcome them. The longer we insist that people sustain happiness, magic and specialness, the less they become able to do so.  When they fail, their stress level and self-blame come into play.  That’s not okay.

The key to being happy is to accept life as it comes along and to finish our unfinished business. That’s pretty much it. When I started the Getting Past the Past program (before the GPYB and GBOT books were written), it was my goal to teach people to tackle things that happened in the past while doing positive things in the present and making goals for the future.

If you want to be happy and healthy, it cannot be about “this is the season to…” That’s nonsense.

No one should be forced to have a good time, go to holiday parties, go to this place and that place.

After my husband passed, the holidays became a nightmare for me.  My birthday and our anniversary is the week before Thanksgiving. It’s a season of horrors for me and the less I am exposed to holiday decorations, songs and gaiety, the better. I am one of those people who just try – hard – to get through to January 2nd. It’s a painful time for me and many others. That is when suicide rates increase and people turn to alcohol and drugs on a more consistent basis.  People who are happy do not do that.

So what can you do to push against the machine?  Here are 6 ways to do it:

  1. Write to the powers-that-be (retailers) and tell them how you feel.  You might not get anywhere but we should not roll over and play dead. If your local stores have had Christmas decorations up since Halloween, write them and tell them you don’t appreciate it and why. Remind them that not everyone celebrates and if they take those people into consideration this time of year, even a little bit, you’ll be more inclined to frequent their stores the rest of the year.
  2. Do things that do make you feel good.  Frequent small, independent shops instead of places where fights break out. Volunteer. Have a plan to participate in ways you’ve never done before. Break with old traditions and start new ones.
  3. Ask family and friends not to insist that you be hap-hap-happy. We don’t need others calling us Scrooges because we honor our own feelings and recognize there is no winter wonderland, no sleigh rides, no chestnuts roasting on an open fire. These images and fantasies have nothing to do with real life.

Maintain your boundaries around the holidays. Ask people not to question your holiday decisions.  Agree on a smaller budget so that the stress of going broke doesn’t impact your spirit of giving. Give a dollar range if you must.  If you have a lot of kids in the family, agree to just give to the kids and the older folks. Reign in the spending. One family I know gives smallish gifts at Christmas and plans a family outing, complete with more extravagant gifts in February. They not only get great deals but they get empty stores and a feeling that their family weekend truly is magical and special.

  1. Write to media outlets that perpetuate this “war on Christmas” myth.  Look up the history of different Christmas traditions like Santa Claus, lights, gifts, cards and the tree and hand them cold, hard facts around the origins of Christmas and how it wasn’t always this nutty. The history of different Christmas symbols will surprise you. But knowledge is power.  Make it your business to find out.
  2. Tell people you will not be sending cards or going to holiday parties or attending a holiday themed get together if you won’t be. That needs to be okay with everyone involved.
  3. Most importantly, plan, now, for a break for yourself whether it’s a spa day or a weekend away or giving yourself something great for Christmas.

Happiness truly is an inside job, not to be dictated by commercial malarkey.

This season is painted as “merry and bright,” but for some is difficult and dark. It’s important to take it a day at a time, to let people know your mindset and take care of you. If you have a good day, enjoy it. If you have a bad day, deal with it by taking extra special care of you on that day, even if it means going home early and taking a bath and going to bed. When you string a bunch of days together just taking them as they come and accepting what they are, you might have a decent time between now and January 2nd.


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