It's Not all Norman Rockwell, And That's OK
Experts say our expectations of the holidays can lead to depression. Part one of a two-part series.
You're supposed to be joyous and festive this time of year. You're supposed to see everything as a celebration. You're supposed to have good will in your heart and think anything's possible in the new year ahead.
You're supposed to. But it's not always that easy.
Psychologists and change gurus say our expectations often are at the heart of the holiday blues. We know what we want to happen, or what we're supposed to want to happen, and when life falls short, it can prompt mild or even deep depression.
Editor's Note: This story is the first in a two-part series. In today's installment, we explore the causes of holiday-time grief. Tomorrow, we'll discuss expert suggestions for beating the holiday blues.
"There are many who expect their holidays to look like a Norman Rockwell painting in which a big, happy and loving family sits around a holiday feast–laughing and enjoying each other's company," said psychologist Marilyn Lyga, Ph.D., a resident of Basking Ridge, who has a practice in Basking Ridge and Princeton. "And the truth is, for many, maybe even most, that's not the reality."
She said there are many factors, social and personal contribute to our expectations: everything from the marketing of the holidays to our own internal beliefs.
"The result is that many of us end up feeling like the kid whose nose is pressed up against the glass–looking at the rest of the world and feeling very left out, because we think that everyone else is having fun and enjoying the perfect holiday and we're not," Lyga said. "Most people are lucky if they have a few Norman Rockwell holidays in their lifetimes."
She said the truth is, most people's holidays are filled with disappointments and stress.
"They feel pressure to create the perfect environment or meal. Someone may feel that they've received a gift that they think is kind of thoughtless when they feel that they put in a lot of time and effort picking out the other person's gift," Lyga said.
In addition to dashed expectations, this year there are added pressures, like the restraints that come from a bad economy.
"I've seen a lot of stress and anxiety last year and this year–much more than usual due to the economy," said Roxbury resident Diane Lang, a therapist, workshop leader and professor of psychology at Montclair State University.
Lang, who is also the author of the book "Creating Balance & Finding Happiness," said she believes that stress levels have been over the top in the last two years in particular. She said the economy's troubles have everyone feeling locked in and afraid.
"The people who have lost their jobs feel depressed because they don't know what to do next. The people who are still working are afraid of losing their jobs so they are working harder and harder and afraid to make a move," Land said.
She said stress levels are high among teens as well.
"I'm seeing the stress from every angle," Lang said. "Parents don't know how to get through this holiday season. They're trying to figure out how to buy less without disappointing the kids. And many of them don't know how to talk to their children or teenagers about what is going on with their finances."
According to Alex Pattakos, Ph.D., a former resident of Morristown, founder of the TheOpaWay.com and author of the book "Prisoners of our Thoughts: Victor Frankl's Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work," the sense of disappointment that many tend to feel during the holiday season is perhaps only slightly enhanced compared to the rest of the year.
Pattakos said that in some ways, the holiday blues become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We've come to expect to feel more emotional or disappointed, he said.
He said that if we allow ourselves to be affected by advertising and television programming around the holiday season, we can begin to feel that life is falling short of the ideal.
"Holidays are kind of moments in time. But that doesn't take away the possibility of finding meaning in what is," said Pattakos. "You may not have the Norman Rockwell holiday. You may not have the ideal. But you have to ask–so now what?"
He said he is a firm believer in the power of choosing one's response and one's thoughts–whether it's the middle of summer or the depths of winter.
He writes in his book, "The space between what happens to us and our response, our freedom to choose that response and the impact it can have upon our lives, beautifully illustrate that we can become a product of our decisions, not our conditions."