The holidays are approaching, and the emotions they bring can feel like sunshine -- or dark clouds. But you're not at the mercy of stormy feelings. If you include some emotional preparation in your holiday plans, you can influence them for the better.
Forecast: Partly angry and sadness with a chance of envy
Sadness, envy, jealousy, worry/anxiety, disappointment, and anger/bitterness are common -- and valid -- holiday emotions. They arise from family and media pressure to feel or be a certain way. But gaps between expectations and reality can leave you feeling miserable.
The holidays promise a kind of warmth and connection that isn't always in reach. You may feel disconnected from your friends or family, or that you don't belong to any cherished group. Perhaps you have to work during the holidays. At times when others are drawing together, you can feel left out in the cold.
If you're struggling to pay your rent, you may not appreciate gift ads or a reminder that your cousin has closed on a condo. It can sting to watch friends go on dream vacations while you trudge to Dullsville or stay home. The holidays are, in large part, about consuming. That can provoke envy.
The holidays often inflame jealousy, which is a feeling of insecurity about what you do have, especially relationships. Everyone looks happy on Facebook without you.
Your daughter is spending Christmas with your ex. Your best friend accepted someone else's party invitation. It can feel awful to believe that maybe these people don't need you -- even if that belief is wrong.
Will your kids make you late to the party? Will your new boyfriend's mom like you? How gluten-free does your kitchen need to be to feed your cousin? Will your father criticize your new haircut? Will your aunt ask for the hundredth time when you're getting married? The holidays offer endless reasons to worry.
The hype of the season promises so much, so there are more ways to feel disappointed. Maybe you won't have enough time with your favorite relative, or your kids have to leave right after dinner to make it home. Maybe your mom reacts to the gift you gave her with less glee than you'd imagined. And maybe you've, in turn, disappointed somebody who expects what you can't provide.
Anger and bitterness
You may find yourself taking stock during the holidays, remembering a better past or wishing you could turn back the clock. Whether you think rotten luck or bad choices got you here, holiday self-reflection can be painful.
Your emotional raincoat: Some tips and wisdom from the Yale Center
Our work at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence shows that the tools of emotional intelligence can help you manage feelings. At any time of year, using these tools can help you feel better, be more creative, make more deliberate decisions, and improve your relationships.
Plan your holiday to support the feelings you want. Try to anticipate how you want to feel, then build in actions, large or small, that promote those feelings. Perhaps it's I want to feel connected to my children. What situations made you feel that way in the past? Maybe you'll organize a game night or find a place for an easy hike together.
Stay in touch with your feelings. Emotions offer important information, so check in with yourself occasionally by naming them. This can be surprisingly difficult, so you might start with an estimate based on your energy level and whether you feel pleasant or not. If you're high-energy, you might feel, if positive, happy or, if negative, angry/anxious. If you're low-energy, you might feel (positive) contented or (negative) blue.
Once you check in, decide if you want to shift your feelings. If you're happy with them, great! If not, you can influence them -- not with willpower, but with simple actions. You might up-regulate your blue mood with dance music to get you through the work you have to do. You might dissipate your loneliness with a friendly phone call. When you're overwhelmed, you might down-regulate by reading or talking a walk to sooth your frayed nerves and come back to yourself.
When stormy emotions blow in, manage them. Start with a meta-moment: a pause between getting triggered and responding. Take a deep breath, gather your wits, and choose how to act. Try to respond as your better self: how can I be the best sister-in-law to my disputing family right now? Reframe the situation by looking at it in another light -- a relative's snarky comment might signify she's having a tough time this year. Or consider dealing openly with conflict by starting that hard conversation. And if you do, take stock of your own feelings, be open to the other person's words and emotions, and problem-solve with a gentle heart.
Be good to yourself. Everyone deserves compassion at the holidays, and that includes you. Try to surround yourself with people you like. Treat yourself to a small kindness, like a favorite movie or a stroll through a craft or car show. Feel your true feelings.
Gratitude is powerful. You're alive! If you lack what you need, you still have the chance to find it. And people care about you, some of whom you may not even know. The holidays can teach us to view our situations with gratitude -- and that's the best possible shelter from life's storms.
Robin Stern, Ph.D. is the associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a psychoanalyst in private practice. She is the author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation that Others Use to Control Your Life.
Diana Divecha, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist and research affiliate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She writes and speaks frequently about children, teens, and family issues. Her blog is developmentalscience.com