North Coast Journal



Guilt: handmaiden to the holidays

by Lesley Meriwether

This time of the year is supposed to be fun, but for many of us it is a time of conflict. We don't have enough time, money or energy to create the perfect holiday. Because of this, we feel disappointed, frustrated and angry -- and beneath all that, we feel guilty.

Guilt is a very personal emotion. It's not necessarily seen by others, and sometimes we even miss it ourselves. It stems from a disagreement between our values and our actions. The conflict is interior; the battle is within.

As we grow up we internalize the voices in our lives so that they become our own inner voice. We develop the ideas of parents, teachers, religious figures and others, and they are incorporated into our belief system. We aspire to have many things: a delightful family, a good job, enough money, a satisfying spiritual life and so on. The list of our expectations is long and often not conscious, at least not in our everyday awareness.

During the holidays many of these ideals surface -- and collide. We think we should have our cards written and mailed, our gifts wrapped and houses decorated, somehow fulfill all our social obligations, and have fun at the same time.

There are many things we do not do, or that we do late. This is a problem throughout the year as well, because we can only do one thing at a time. If you are visiting Aunt Mary, you are not cleaning your kitchen or decorating your home or any of the other things that need doing.

Realize that when you choose to do something, you are choosing not to do all those other things -- at least not at that time. If you are conscious about your choices, you can take responsibility for them and let go of other things for the time being; if not, you will have an underlying feeling of guilt about those things left undone.

Look at what you are actually doing or not doing in your life, and then decide if guilt is the appropriate response. If you feel it is, let it be a motivating emotion that takes you to a remedial action.

Breaking the barrier to change is often the hardest part, so it helps to start with something small. It's surprising how much small actions can help. If you owe money, pay a little to get started; if you owe a letter, send a note. If you owe an apology, start with a gesture of friendship such as buying a cup of coffee or a beer for your friend, or give her flowers. (This is not gender-specific; men appreciate thoughtfulness, too.) If flowers seem too intimate, give a funny balloon or a card.

There are as many ways to make amends as there are people making mistakes. Be creative and enjoy yourself as much as you can in the process of putting things right, thereby doubling the positive energy.

During the holidays money can be a big source of guilt. When you buy too much, you feel guilty; when you buy too little, you can feel that way, too. If you have children, try to let them know your limits beforehand. Sometimes spending the family money on a holiday together, or buying something everyone can enjoy, is a way to spend less and still have a good time. We are all affected by cuts, and our children need to understand and accept this, too.

Since a lot of our guilt is deep and old, it's sometimes difficult to reach. Writing about how we feel -- and the sources of those feelings -- helps. Talking to someone else is another good way to work on these feelings. If you are unable to unravel your knot of guilt, get help. Therapists are trained to help with these emotions.

Guilt works directly against pleasure. If you have felt frustrated or depressed during past holidays, take action this year to change that experience. You are the one who can make the most difference for yourself.

Lesley Meriwether is a registered nurse and psychotherapist with the Arcata Family Medical Group.

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