Mind games for the holidays


Is any season
more mixed up than the holidays? Where we feel such gratitude for our loved
ones, and wish they would go away? Where we give lavishly and wonder if we can
appease our boss with a $10 gift? Where couples cuddle in front of the fire and
odd-one-out singles sit at the end of each holiday table, reminded once again
that they’re not paired?

How do we handle
such an emotional mix? Some go all out with 40 boxes of decorations. Others
boycott the whole thing, vacationing to places where no one knows they’re
exhausted or miserable. Some drink too much or stay so busy that there’s no
down time to feel hurt or disappointment.

The problem with
such one-sided coping strategies is that they don’t honor the season’s mix of
good and bad. So whatever side of the emotional spectrum we’ve been avoiding
keeps knocking, asking us to let in whatever we’re forbidding ourselves or
numbing during this time.

So in answer to
the mixed up-edness of this season, I’m recommending two holiday “mind games”
to help us through, one for the good stuff and one for the bad.

Expanding our
joy tolerance

Researchers have
found that our brains dedicate increasingly greater numbers of neurons and
strength of neural connections to whatever emotions we spend the most time on.
So intentionally dwelling on whatever good does
occur in our lives this season amid the
hard stuff gives us power to expand our capacity to take in and stay in joy
longer than we could if we simply let the sadness or frustration have all our

By dedicating
some time each day to listing those things that we are grateful for or that
brought us joy that day, however small these may be, we can increase our
attention to any good things that do come along and expand our ability to feel
good more often.

emotion an inch, not a mile

Since the
Gratitude Game doesn’t work with negative holiday emotions like sadness, anger,
disappointment, loneliness or dread, we’ll need the Containment Game for these.

These emotions
exist to tell us that something’s not right. Keeping busy or numb to avoid them
doesn’t make them go away. It simply adds the fear of feeling the emotion
to the intensity of the emotion itself.
To manage these emotions, we really need to hear the message they’re sending,
while not letting them take over and cut us off from any joy that comes our

We can do this
by scheduling a limited time to really feel any emotions we’ve been dodging —
15 minutes a day, two hours per week, or whatever works. During that time, we
might journal about the feeling, scream about it, call someone to talk about
it, or break some cheap plates while thinking about it — whatever! It is the
choice to go in and out of the feeling over and over that gradually decreases
our fear of the feeling so that it does not get to take over all
of our holiday experiences.

Disciplining our
minds to express emotion and then contain it, or to attend to good things that
we normally miss in our hurt or frustration is not easy — but neither are the
holidays. The hard work of setting aside time for both gratitude and hurt can
make the difference between an awful holiday season and an OK one, or an OK one
and a great one.

Diebel, MA, NCC, is a local psychotherapist. Learn more about her at