12/11/2012 03:06 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2013

Faking the Holiday Spirit

Pretending to be happy is a terrible burden. When we're not feeling cheerful, trying to get into the so-called holiday spirit can be exhausting. Straining to keep up with the banter, laughing at the jokes, attending to people's stories, and maintaining the overall pretense tends to deplete the spirit rather than spur some sort of revival.

One difficulty is that holidays are evocative of memories, many of which are accompanied by grief. We may be reminded of all who are missing from our lives -- those who have died, those who live at a distance, or those from whom there has been a lingering estrangement. We may find ourselves aching for a relationship that has been lost or a home that had to be relinquished. Unless the loss was recent, it is unlikely that anyone will ask about it or give it even a passing acknowledgement.

Another pressure that tends to remain hidden is worry over tight finances. Money woes can crash anyone's mood, especially with so much emphasis in our society on gift-buying and other ways of displaying material abundance. No one wants to come empty-handed to a gathering, yet laying out the cash for a decent bottle of wine can mean having only a few dollars left for gas. The sight of other people's financial ease, the very privilege of their generosity, can lead to self-accusation, shame, and negative comparisons that defy attempts at merriment.

Amidst a convivial atmosphere, feeling blue is a direct route to loneliness. Suppressing sadness only makes it worse; we feel it to be ours alone, beyond the reach of comfort or commiseration. Speaking up about it can seem sorely out of place, or at least a drag on the festivities. It is almost impossible to find the right moment to say, "I'm really homesick," or to admit to a groundswell of grief for someone who is missing from the gathering. Referring to the stress of barely getting by can feel particularly alien when everyone else is acting as though they don't have a care in the world.

The fact is that at virtually every gathering over the holidays, there will be a subset of people with mixed feelings -- someone with a secret hurt, another with scarcely-concealed anxiety, several bearing the ache of sorrow. But social conventions run deep. We are not supposed to answer honestly when someone asks, "How are you?" Everything and everyone must always be "great" and "wonderful," especially at this time of year. Thus, it is hard for the hurting to find each other and feel less alone.

If someone dares to admit that they are having a hard time, there may be considerable awkwardness as people grope for the right thing to say. We are so accustomed to glib superficiality that a sudden eruption of authenticity can shock us into silence. To avoid this reaction or fearing that they will be marked as a Grinch, most who are suffering will conceal their true feelings and find excuses to leave early. Others will simply not show up, finding it far easier to be alone than to feel alienated from the surrounding glee of a holiday party.

The remedy is the opposite of what we tend to do in social situations like these -- to make room for being real, to come up with a means of recognizing the full range of emotions experienced at this time of year. Imagine going around the table, with each person describing something that has been a struggle for them over the past year. One person revealing worry or insecurity is likely to inspire others to emerge from hiding. Commiseration springs forth as people see they are not the only ones harboring difficult feelings. Pretense vanishes in the face of such openness, and it is a relief.

Recently, when I was with a group of elders who were mostly over the age of 75, I asked what was hard for them this time of year. Three said they were missing their parents and one said she was missing the home "where everyone used to gather." Soon the conversation became animated, with people admitting to several varieties of sadness. Paradoxically, the mood of the group became warm and convivial as each person thrust aside the curtain of aloneness and took comfort from each other.

Conversations that include difficulties as well as blessings bring people together. Once sorrow is expressed and comfort is received, we tend to feel better. Moods improve readily with true commiseration. As the burden of faking it is lifted, there is so much more energy and connection available. Finally, we can laugh as others join in with self-deprecating remarks and anecdotes that cancel out shame and loneliness in one fell swoop. We're all in this together. This is the true holiday spirit.

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