I promised myself that I wouldn’t write a post about the holidays. I wouldn’t do it. Then, of course, I find it difficult to put pen to paper (aka fingers to keyboard) this time of year without blurting out the word “holidays.” And just like that, I’ve already said it twice.
This is *not* an article about the holidays… not entirely, anyway. It’s about what the holidays do to a brain that’s programmed for and prone to anxiety.
The other day, I was having a conversation with a colleague of mine about OCD. More specifically, the discussion was centered around the following question: How can we help a person who does not have OCD understand what it’s like for a person with OCD to be experiencing OCD? Essentially, we wondered if there were some way to simulate what the OCD experience might be like, so as to help others better understand what that person is going through.
I’ve written before about communication, and about how no matter how well we think we may be explaining something to someone with our words, it’s almost impossible to control the way that person interprets what we’ve said. I say “almost impossible” because my anxiety wishes that I could choose another person’s perfect reaction to the things I say, and I’m probably either too optimistic or I’m too stubborn to admit that something I want so badly is impossible.
Basically, though? It’s impossible.
Truthfully, it’s unfortunate, because it sure would make things a whole lot easier if we could control how well we were understood by other people. In fact, that might be one of the best— albeit most anticlimactic and horrible-for-the-movies— superpowers I could ever come up with. Doesn’t translate into a screenplay, but what an amazing ability that would be.
I mean really, when you think about how much conflict of the world’s conflicts can probably be boiled down to a lack of mutual understanding of one another, you can’t help but think about how different things might be if we did have the power to help others understand, simply by sheer willpower. Sadly, that’s not the world we live in, although I do believe we can do better to be more understanding people as a whole. That in itself is its own separate conversation, but I digress for the time being.
So how does this translate to OCD and the holidays? Simple.
For many of us, the holidays are “supposed to be" a time of celebration, togetherness, tradition, and relaxation, and fortunately for many of us, they actually are. Still, for all of the sentimentality and comfort that comes with carrying out our rituals and customs, the door is also open to feelings of sadness when members of your family are no longer there, and nostalgia for happier times.
The planning process alone, especially for hosts, often comes with expectations, enormous stress and overwhelm, not to mention futile attempts at relaxation amidst what is realistically sheer and utter chaos. Yet, because humans tend to be creatures of habit, you tend to go along with all of that anyway when it’s your tradition, your crazy family, your chaos because you don’t really know anything else. I’m not saying that’s a good or a bad thing; it’s just a thing that happens.
Obviously, my experience will have been different than yours, but the point is that I can’t think of a better time of year that exemplifies habit and routine for the majority of people than the time between Thanksgiving and New Years. Even if the holiday routine is stressful and anxiety-inducing, for many people, so is change. And yes, as much as my family’s three-week-long deliberation over the Christmas Day menu drives me nuts, it was hard for me to spend the holidays away from home, which is what I did for the first time last year.
Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to experience my fiancé’s (now wife’s) version of the holidays with her extended family. They welcomed me, and I appreciated their enthusiasm and acceptance of me into their family traditions. It was just different than what I had been used to, and it brought about a wide range of different emotions, confusion, and anxiety. What’s ironic, in a way, is that between taking part in an entirely new tradition last year and spending the holidays back at home again this year, both have caused me anxiety. They’re just different kinds of anxiety for different reasons.
What I’ve found is that although there are things about my family’s holiday traditions that I would like to change, for the most part, I’ve still kind of gone along with the same old chaos year after year. More irony— I don’t consider myself to be a person who finds it easy to “go with the flow.” Yet, as much as I resist it, that’s pretty much what I wind up doing in the end anyway, give or take a few little details.
What this all boils down to is this: for as much as I’m used to my family’s traditions and missed them when I wasn’t a part of them, there are certain things that I’ve realized I want the holidays to be, just for me. Is that selfish? It may seem that way, at least a little bit. But the fact is that many of us sacrifice things we want or go along with things we don’t want, all in the name of togetherness, celebration, and tradition this time of the year.
So what does this mean for you?
I don’t know, exactly, because I don’t know you and I recognize that our personal experiences have fundamental differences. What I can offer, though, is a sentiment of optimism and empowerment that I’m trying to realize myself as well: If there’s something you want during this time of year, regardless of whether or not it fits into everyone else’s traditions, syncs up with their routines, or meets the expectations that people have of you, give yourself at least a little bit of time to indulge in that for yourself, even if it’s just for a brief amount of time. And not just give, but allow yourself to do something that’s just for you.
Think of it this way… there’s so much emphasis, time, thought, and energy that gets put into getting “the best gift ever” for someone else around the holidays. Now flip it inwards for a second and ask yourself, if you were to give yourself “the best gift ever,” what would that be?
Whatever your answer is, whether it’s an elaborate gift of thoughtfulness, an uncharacteristic overindulgence, or simply allowing yourself a day of quiet time to binge watch your favorite series on Netflix without beating yourself up over it (that last part is critical), I say go for it. I’ll be trying to take my own advice here, too— I make no promises, but I will be trying.
I’m not saying this will come naturally or easily— for some of us, especially those of us with OCD, this is likely to be far more easily said than done. After all, some of the *wonderful* (read as: extremely frustrating and debilitating) characteristics of OCD include irrational fear, self-criticism, and repetitive intrusive thoughts. Thoughts that cause us to pass judgment on ourselves as to how your time “should” have been spent being more productive, or whatever the case might be. You know, those fun little thoughts that stop you from being able to enjoy most things, period.
It may very well be a struggle and process to come to a point where you can allow yourself to do something for yourself. But, if and when you finally are able to bring yourself to do it, there’s something ridiculously satisfying about having taken an active role and responsibility for achieving our own happiness.
Impossible? Again, I’m stubborn and optimistic, so no. Not impossible.
It’s the season of giving, after all. By all means, be generous in spirit and kindness to others. Just don’t forget about doing the same for yourself, too.
If you were to give yourself your own “best gift ever,” what would that be?
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