Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Internalized Opression -The Problem with Holiday Cheer

Someone asked me to write about "how we coped with the holidays" for an upcoming Asperger's meeting. I came up with this.

The Problem with Holiday Cheer

Facebook has a new application that allows you to see the highlights of your year. It has the default setting of "It's been a great year. Thanks for being a part of it!" The problem with this cheery greeting is that it fails to take into account that not everyone has had a great year. Computer algorithms cannot take into account human emotions. Many people had a difficult year and don't want to be reminded of it.

It is this constant pressure to be happy that I dislike most about the holiday season. There are Christmas songs on the radio telling you that it's "the most wonderful time of the year." There are people talking about holiday spirit and holiday cheer. People are decorating trees, buying gifts, and talking about all the parties they will go to and the events that take place during "the holidays." The words "the holidays" are elevated to almost a mythic place, a place where nothing could or should go wrong simply because it's "the holidays."

Even when you don't have actual people telling you to be happy, the message is clear from the environment around you. Our culture in general seems to be over-reliant on the concept of happiness. If you only try hard enough, and work hard enough, you too can be happy - it seems to promise. Only, that's not actually true for many people. Depression, anxiety, and social anxiety are very common events for many people. Life events such as deaths, medical issues and financial issues don't take a break for the holidays. The problem with holiday cheer is that sometimes it creates the feeling within us that we need to be more happy than we actually are. We feel like a failure and somehow less than others for not being as happy as we feel we ought to. This just adds to our depression!

 Happiness is a fast moving target. A lot of our happiness seems to depend on how happy we perceive others to be, and how happy we think we "should" be. We might have been doing just fine before we looked around and saw how happy someone else was - or how happy we *thought* they were. Many people fake happiness because they feel the pressure to act happy around others. They feel like they won't be accepted in social situations if they are down in the dumps, so they act. Meanwhile, someone next to them may be internally berating themselves, "If only I could be happy like that person! Why am I so ungrateful? I should be happy!" and base this off of false information. The cycle of being fake, self-comparison and resultant depression keeps going on and on. The holidays add to this by creating an expectation that everyone be happy.

Holidays are a time for families to get together, which is great except for the people who don't have families or have problems with their families. There is a lot of pressure on everyone to be perfect.

People on the autism spectrum often can fall prey to this pattern of thinking they should be happier, because everyone around them seems to be. They don't want to be alone on the holidays, even if it's a holiday they don't celebrate, because no one else is. Holidays can be overwhelming to sensory issues - a lot of noise, sounds, smells, and activity. Parties can be overwhelming to those of us not as socially savvy, and to those of us who are just sick of feeling left out. Also, the holiday season can mess with our routines, cancelling activities we usually do and making people and businesses usually accessible to us closed off for some or all of the holiday season. Holidays, at their worst, are stressful, full of pressure, and disruptive. To many, holidays are a time to be joyful and celebrate, and I definitely try to incorporate as much of that spirit as I can into my daily life in the month of December. But at the end of the day, I'm just praying for January.

1 comment:

  1. In the US it seems like you have this run of things (Halloween-Thanksgiving-Hanukkah-Christmas) leading up to the end of the year. That's a lot of pressure to be "externally happy".

    In Australia, we only have Christmas.

    Some of our biggest family fights happen on Christmas. The gift exchange process also helps us to find out how well others understand us. Plus of course, there's so many loud noises. It's a tough time.

    I do believe in that time of year (basically the last week of the year) in which you try to find whatever happiness you can. It's sort of like a "look on the bright side" week for me -- and it's even more important when you've had a difficult year.

    How can you start a new year if you haven't made peace with the old one?

    You don't have to be joyful happy, just think through the year, bad as it might be and try to decide what the ten best things were in it. Then, resolve to at least do those things (or something similar again next year), plus more.

    That thought alone should help you to find a little happiness.