As a psychiatrist, making spirits bright is my job all year long. I prescribe antidepressant medications, but also help patients prepare to navigate holiday gatherings and family obligations. We can enjoy the holidays when all is calm, but what about when it’s not so bright? Contentment grows from the ability to pause and take notice amid the chaos of the season.
I started practicing meditation, breathing, and the conscious movement of yoga to be more present for the moments that count—but I struggle to stay mindful during the holidays. Last Christmas, I was doing everything right with my yoga practice yet everything still felt wrong, like yoga wasn’t working. If you feel your self-care routine is letting you down, consider these five causes.
Compassion fatigue is common in people who work in helping professions. It often starts with feeling pressed for time and eliminating the very things that would combat stress. We eat lunch over the computer rather than breathing and cancel yoga class to finish emails.
People who work as caregivers, advocates for social change, or healthcare providers keep pouring on empty. We give because of work obligations, but also our own high expectations. We lose compassion for ourselves.
Compassion fatigue can progress and mimic depression with irritability, a tendency to blame others, loss of motivation, and lack of enjoyment in tasks.
When I first started practicing yoga, I imagined I’d transform into a zen master and never get upset. This didn’t happen; my thoughts were all over the place even though I was putting in time and effort. I stopped practicing because I didn’t think I was any good at it.
It was unrealistic for a yoga class here and there to transform me into a relaxed creature, the unicorn version of my best self. I was looking for an A-ha moment when yoga is about little shifts in mindset over time.
The holidays often mean gatherings with the very people that trigger distressing memories. In yoga, the phrase "no mud, no lotus" refers to a resilient flower that grows in muddy water. It is a symbol of good fortune in Buddhism. I love the idea that something wonderful can come from ugliness, but having experienced mud in childhood, it's hard for me to be thankful for the trauma.
My inability to celebrate the mud left me with a brokenness that blocked my gratitude practice. It took years for me to realize I’m not defective. I don’t have to be grateful for the mud to be a grateful person and I don’t have to run from upsetting emotions. Anger and I can just sit together.
There is no holiday that brings out perfectionists more than Christmas. Even when we stay home with family, we get side- tracked by the food, the clothing, and decorating the house. Do I want to enjoy the day or exhaust myself trying to recreate the Hallmark channel?
Most of us don’t view ourselves as perfectionists as we focus on our flaws. Our society values over work for high achievement. We all like to be good at stuff and won’t admit when things are hard. Why not? I want credit for the time I spent cleaning and decorating the home. Why pretend it was effortless?
I’ve heard “you can’t pour from an empty cup” countless times but my dedication to self-care wasn’t filling me up. Any energy I restored was poured right back out, like the flow through a funnel. Even if it’s raining self-care, a funnel will still be empty.
When I thought about how little I was doing to care for myself, I realized I was an upside-down funnel. My little spout was on top and all my energy was spraying out the bottom in different directions. I was giving from a state of depletion.
How mindfulness can help
Mindfulness is about noticing thoughts and feelings as they arise, without labeling them as good or bad. When you accept a thought as just a thought and not a character flaw, you can be angry without believing you are an angry person. You also don’t have to thank the mud to be a grateful person.
Mindfulness allowed me to flip my funnel and be more careful about how emotional and physical energy flow in and out of my body. I started to fill up and there are days I overflow with creativity and gratitude.
Your presence is gift enough
Protect your energy by recognizing the aspects of the world, your job, and your family that are broken. You can be responsible for you and contribute without carrying the disappointment of not being able to fix the unfixable. Don’t let the holiday run you; you are choosing how to be in a stressful situation. Show up as the holidays are better with you than without you. Breathe and take time to unplug. Taking care of yourself is a gift to your family and friends.