Christmas is a big reality check. It is the only time of the year when we leave who we are, who we want to be, what we do and our secret dreams and desires on the doormat outside as we come home to face our families around the Christmas dinner table. It is almost as if we shed our personal identity to take our place on the family’s stage.
For many people, this can be the most pleasant and joyful experience in the world. For many others, however, the Christmas period is the most stressful and emotionally challenging time of the year. Depression and divorce soar during the Christmas period.
Why does this happen?
When you live your life on a day-to-day basis, there are probably small parts of your life that you dislike. For instance, your marriage may not be exactly how you think it ought to be. Your children may be growing up to be different to how you think they should be, given all you have tried to teach them. Your house may not be the large, dream house you had expected to have by now and you still have a mortgage. When these thoughts of dislike and frustration usually surface, you are probably able to drown them away. You might throw yourself into your work or you might think of something else as you go out drinking with your friends.
Our personal views and opinions are intricately woven into our sense of ‘self’. If we act in accordance with what we think, we feel good. If we don’t we feel bad. We want our inner mind and our outside actions to ‘resonate’ and be in harmony. If the two contradict each other, they are said to be ‘dissonant’. If we are forced to accept things that we do not believe to be right or true, this dissonance makes us deeply unhappy. Psychologists know this phenomenon as ‘cognitive dissonance’.
When you are seated around a dining table, you are forced to face issues without a chance to distract yourself. You look at your marriage and are reminded that it is ‘dissonant’ with what you think it should be. You think your spouse is ‘dissonant’ with your mental idea of a perfect spouse. The reality of your children and your house are ‘dissonant’ with what your ideals are. Despite all these realities, you must carry on living and behaving as if everything is wonderful. You are expected to act in a way that shows how much you appreciate your spouse and marriage, how proud you are of your children and how happy you are in your home.
Cognitive dissonance may be one of the biggest causes of unhappiness around the Christmas table. Things you have always tried to brush under the carpet crawl out and face you, head on. As they do, you are faced with cognitive dissonance. This creates inner mental and emotional conflict.
We are all wired to do everything we can to reduce any cognitive dissonance we are faced with. There are several ways of doing this. One way is by changing our own point of view. For instance, if we are suffering from marriage-related cognitive dissonance, we can convince ourselves that even though our marriage isn’t perfect, it is probably better than most marriages out there. This reduces the dissonance. If our house is not the large house we hoped we’d have by this age, we might convince ourselves that at least it is the largest house on the street. When we are unable to resolve the dissonance through changing our point of view, we may take a more drastic step. When facing your father across the table and his unfair decision to give your brother his entire vinyl collection, instead of giving you half, you might launch a vocal protest. By protesting, you are acting in accordance with what you believe to be right and this reduces the dissonance and makes you feel better.
Marriages may break apart and family feuds may begin as people try desperately to resolve the cognitive dissonance they are faced with over Christmas.
What can you do about it?
- Well before your family gathers around for Christmas, take a few hours to sit quietly and write down all the things about your family, your job and your life that you dislike and would like to change. Be honest with yourself. Next, write down the first step you will take to change every one of these things. Last, write down at least ten things about your family, your job and your life that make you happy.
- Spend an hour alone every day filling your mind with something unrelated to your family or to Christmas. You could schedule in an hour in the gym or read an intense book.
- Schedule in another hour of ‘protected time’ to listen to Mozart every evening. Mozart’s compositions have been shown to rather amazingly reconcile cognitive dissonance. Spend an hour every evening alone, listening to his music.
- If things get tense, take some time out and return to the list you wrote and read it carefully.
- Sing carols. Singing as a group lowers stress levels and raises oxytocin, the ‘bonding’ hormone. This increases harmony.
- Laugh! Watch as many funny films with your family as you can. Laughing together is great for bonding. Positivity is very contagious.
- Lastly, do not make any important decisions over the Christmas period and remind yourself constantly that what happens during this time does not in any way reflect the reality of your life. As the Christmas turkey retires for the year, so will all your unhappiness.