First, the WHY. This is multifaceted and certainly varies from person to person:
WHY: Abandonment, that common old culprit, is a deep shame so entrenched, most affected people don’t even know they are operating out of it. Whether with full memories in hand or not, it doesn’t matter. The narrative is: I wasn’t good enough to keep or to stay with or to stand by or to love well. This may affect children you are parenting, or it could be residual pain from your own childhood – someone left you, walked away, or maybe even lived in your home but was entirely absent. This sense of unworthiness is so deep, it takes a lifetime of intentional work to overcome. What shame says is this: I am not worthy of love, happiness, or goodness. It seems ridiculous to those who love that person, but those affections can’t erase a hard story. When someone doesn’t feel worthy of happiness on Big Days, he or she might sabotage to hasten the disappointment before it gets to them first. Double bonus if that behavior triggers someone else’ anger, because then shame is validated.
WHY: Big Days trigger Big Feelings. No matter the extreme (good or bad), it is all INTENSE and triggering. It conjures the most tender emotions, the most volatile responses, kind of like laughing hysterically at a funeral. Of course the reaction seems outrageous, but Big is Big and when a traumatized or sensitive person opens the door to Big, everything is free to spill out. Some folks spend so much energy keeping a lid on their pain and fear and trying to just “act normal,” so when permission is granted to feel all their feels, both ends of the spectrum dump their restrained contents and it is a cluster of hysteria.
WHY: For many people, exiting the safe space of ordinary, regulated, predictable routine and entering the scary space of extraordinary, disregulated, unpredictable practice is very disruptive. When your insides feel out of control, it is incredibly calming to have a schedule you can count on; no big surprises to derail, no left field scenarios to navigate, no uncertain activities to worry about. Big Days not only produce exceptional emotions (not normal), but everyone else places heightened expectations on the impending (not normal) celebration, and the stress is unmanageable.
Or the opposite. Maybe you (or someone you love) place your own unreasonable expectations on Big Days. Someone might imagine a narrative so impossible, so idealistic, so over-the-top, every normal detour is devastating. The desire to craft the Most Perfect Day Ever reaches a fever pitch, and with the slightest wobble to the plan, that person comes unraveled. He or she wants to control the outcome all the way to perfection, but that doesn’t exist and inner shame trumps it anyway. That person falls from an exceptional height of Expectations + “I am unworthy of happiness.”
WHY: Regret and sadness. You know what? It is just sad to remember grief or pain or loss, whether it happened early or just this year. Big Days can be a reminder of what should have been but wasn’t, all that was lost, all that will never be. While others seem to happily skip through every charmed Christmas memory, the sensitive, fragile heart feels lonely and isolated from the merriment, alone in very real feelings of sadness.
So here are some suggestions for Big Days:
If possible, shrink the runway to Big Days. The longer the season (THANKS FOR NOTHING CHRISTMAS SEASON THAT NOW STARTS IN OCTOBER), the greater the stress. It’s just too much to worry about for too long. So if possible, don’t say a word until the day before or day of. On seasons like Christmas, the next suggestion is helpful…
Which is this: lower stimulation all around. The conventional American approach suggests that MORE Christmas is called for. Let’s make so many beautiful memories! We’ll give you all the magic! But it can have the opposite effect. Too much stimulus, too many feelings, too much activity, too many opportunities to fall apart. Keep Big Days (and seasons) simple. Don’t overschedule or overhype. The calmer an activity is, the less noise and people, the better. And don’t talk about those activities until they are practically happening. Less is more.
Try to manage expectations. Cast simple, manageable vision for Big Days: this is what we’ll do, this is who will be there, this is what we won’t be doing, this is about how long it will last. If possible, address unrealistic expectations early; better now than someone obsess for weeks then face disappointment times one million. (I had a hard conversation with a kid a couple of years ago because she kept asking for an iPhone. I finally said, “Honey, you are not getting an iPhone. No 3rd grader in this family has ever had an iPhone. Let’s let that go right now so you don’t expect one on Christmas morning.” Once that stressor was gone, she did not worry about it for the next 10 days then despair on Christmas morning.) When someone tips their hand toward unrealistic expectations, manage them then and there. And if the unrealistic expectation is yours, sit your own self down and talk yourself out of the rafters. Paint a realistic picture for your mind and try to untangle from dreamy scenarios that will unlikely happen.
If it is appropriate, lots of touching and pauses for affection. This has a calming effect on my entire family actually. When you see one of your people spiraling, it helps to pull them on your lap, rub their backs, and redirect their attention for a few minutes. It is a physical solution to an emotional problem. It often works like a reset button. If it is you? Talk someone into scratching your back or rubbing your hands or shoulders for five minutes. (One of my best friends likes to have a small touch during Big Moments. I’ll reach over and rest my hand on her forearm and tell her, “Who loves you? Me.”)
Finally, talk in advance about how Big Feelings might show up. Recall other Big Days and identify emotions. Validate, validate, validate, making sure your Big Day Struggler hears that he or she is NOT a bad person wrecking a perfectly good day. (And you may need to tell this to yourself, dear one.) Talk about fear and sadness and feelings of scarcity and how that shows up, and give them full permission to feel it all. Assure them that whether they get a handle on it or not, they could not possibly make you love them less, and if the worst thing that happens is they have a bad day, then no big deal. Everyone gets to have bad days. It’s not a deal breaker.
Just taking that pressure off is so helpful. Feeling less alone in anxiety, confusion, and shame is so healing. The message is: We are in this together, and just knowing that makes us all less afraid.
For those of us managing a lot of hearts and lives, it helps to take our own expectations out of the stratosphere, and if a Big Day goes beautifully, then HUZZAH!! If it doesn’t, it is just a day and we are looking at the long road with our people, right?
To all parents doing this hard work and to grown-ups with sabotaging behaviors and worries about these Big Days ahead, I just love you. We’ll just keep working, keep trying, keep loving, and keep forgiving ourselves when it all goes sideways. You are not alone, know that. So many of us are right there with you, doing the stuff, having victories and flat-out disasters. But we are trying and we care and we Love Big and that counts.
The merriest of Christmases to you, friends. And if the whole Big Day goes in the gutter, there is always the egg nog.
What is your experience here? What do you see? What do you do? How do you help?