How To Deal With Loneliness During The Holidays
It may be the merriest time of the year, but not for all. Here's how you can cope, or help those who need it most.
Everyone is happy when Christmas rolls in. It’s a non-issue. After all, it’s the longest non-working holiday of the year, computers and work phones are finally left alone, food and drink are abundant, and the company of loved ones feels especially warm, inviting, and comforting. Everyone is feeling golden and fuzzy for these reasons and more—so why aren’t you?
Here’s an unpopular opinion, but hear us out.
You’re not feeling the holiday spirit because Christmas can, in fact, be the loneliest time of the year. The holiday season has been found to increase feelings of isolation and withdrawal, potentially putting you in emotional quarantine, so to speak. It’s a phenomenon that affects people of all backgrounds, but this is an especially painful experience for Filipinos unable to relate to the cultural expectation that Christmas is when they should be feeling the most Pinoy, or in other words, their happiest. Think about it. Filipino culture dictates that we be our most cheerful and grateful selves once the calendar gives way to the “bers.” You should be feeling thankful for life’s gifts, both tangible and intangible. You should be glad that you got through yet another year (Do you hear “Magpasalamat tayo sa Diyos na buhay tayo” in a parent’s or grandparent’s voice?). You should be like everyone else that’s focusing on the good rather than the bad, because that’s the Filipino Christmas’ number one rule.
However, these should weigh heavily on the shoulders of some, or perhaps many, Filipinos whose experience of the holidays is in truth absolute misery. And when these individuals come to the realization that they’re unlike their friends, family, and colleagues having a grand old merry time during the last days of the year, the sinking feeling of “otherness” that comes with being unable to go through Christmas like a “normal” person grows and grows, so much so that Jose Mari Chan hits no longer bring joy but usher in waves of negative thoughts and feelings.
It has to be said that being Filipino does not oblige you to ignore your genuine feelings should they go against the grain of Pinoy holiday tradition. If you had an awful year, if you feel life is being particularly unkind at the moment, if Christmas makes you cry for whatever reason at all, know that you are a hundred percent allowed to let these thoughts and emotions run free. Enjoying a tasty lechon and multiple rounds of queso de bola at noche buena is great and all, but if you’re asking us, nothing beats the comfort of soothing your invisible aches and pains by prioritizing your mental health concerns over everything else. The lechon will still be there in the morning anyway, and maybe the week after when it’s turned into lechon paksiw. Your mental health, on the other hand, needs immediate TLC and attention. If these are ideas that resonate with you, perhaps the gift you never knew you needed was to give yourself a chance to be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling this Christmas season.
Being real about this less frequently explored side of Christmas, it's time that we acknowledge this reality; Christmas can hurt, and it’s okay to admit that Christmas sucks because it can be a sucky time. Doing so doesn’t make you the Grinch. It makes you human.
In conversations with psychologists Dr. Honey Carandang and Gisa Paredes, we talk about the reality of the lonely Filipino Christmas and what can be done to acknowledge it in healthy and positive ways. If you or someone close to you could use a helping hand this Christmas, this one’s for you.
“People don't usually or cannot talk about [mental health]. Remember mental health is not a comfortable topic, until recently. Although, it's not that comfortable to talk about in our culture,” Dr. Carandang begins.
It’s a good stepping stone to understanding the difficulty of admitting to one’s self or to others that our Christmas isn’t glowing with the gentle glow of a parol. Mental health in the Philippines is still just an emerging area, which means understanding feelings of sadness, depression, anxiety, and other forms of psychological discomfort or distress as part of one’s overall health is yet to be established. It’s much easier to talk about say, something as serious as a diagnosis of a terminal illness getting in the way of merriment, but what if someone admitted that they were clinically depressed or have just been prescribed psychiatric medication? Would they receive the same kind of support and understanding?
Dr. Carandang wishes to send words of comfort to those who relate to this—emotionally burdensome Christmases among Filipinos are more common than we think. Don’t let the fact that no one talks about them fool you. If reaching out to trusted connections is still too difficult, do find solace in how you are not alone in your experiences.
She adds that the dates between December 24 to January 6 are likely to be the most challenging. The pain and loneliness reach their peak during these dates, so try your best to be in contact with those who understand you the most or in contrast, offer your company to a loved one who you know might need it—even though they might not directly ask for it.
Should you find yourself on either side of this situation, Dr. Carandang offers practical pieces of advice for how to manage it.
#1: If you have a loved one going through a difficult Christmas, accept their experience without judgment.
Do not try to fix them. Do not point out how they have no reason to be sad, because of their “many blessings.” Do not invalidate their emotions or minimize their suffering. Do not shame them and certainly do not tell them they are overreacting or exaggerating. Do not claim to know what is best for them and proceed to direct them on how to go about things.
Instead, do allow them to open up. Do listen to them without an intention to solve a problem as many times, providing a safe space for them to lay down their thoughts and feelings can already be helpful. Do commend them for being brave enough to verbalize their pain and offer your trust and confidence—and mean what you say. Do give advice, but only if explicitly asked. Otherwise, just listen. The simple act of being present can work wonders.
#2: The rule of thumb is only provide support if you can afford to do so.
“We also look into ourselves and say, ‘How do I feel about all these things myself?’ Because if you are also feeling sad and not able to handle it, [you] might as well not help another person. Help yourself first. Ask for help because you yourself are not comfortable,” Dr. Carandang states.
This is important because as human beings, we can only provide genuine love and care if our cups are full. If we cannot look after ourselves first and foremost, it would be a disservice to the person we are offering assistance to pretend that we are pillars of strength. Offering help when you cannot afford to do so is worsening your problem and theirs.
#3: Approach the person you are helping with sensitivity.
It might be “obvious” to you that a close friend or relative isn’t doing so well, but did you realize that it might not be the case for them? Sadness and its cousins can be difficult to identify for those personally experiencing them. Therefore, even though you may be motivated by good intentions, remember to first, never assume that you know exactly what is going through someone’s mind and second, even when you’re absolutely sure you’re right about your hunches about someone, do not be confrontational.
“Don't just say ‘Hey, I think you’re feeling sad.’ Don't just blurt out feelings like that. Be with the person first, physically if it's possible… Connect first with the person. You cannot help anyone if you are not connected, “ Dr. Carandang explains.
She continues, “When you are already connected with the person you can say, ‘You know what, I'm concerned about something. I can sense that there is something you are feeling or something that is bothering you. I’m just concerned so is it ok for you to tell me about it?’”
#4: Behave with discretion.
Let’s be frank about this. Don’t be chismosa.
Before you divulge someone’s life struggles with others who they chose not to directly speak to about them, think about how they trusted you and you alone at this time. Reflect on how they picked you to honor this code of confidence and protect, rather than exploit, their vulnerability. Feel privileged that they chose you but do not feel the need to advertise this. Resist the urge to kiss and tell, because that is a sure fire way to hurt the person you supposedly want to help. They picked you because they believed you were trustworthy—live up to the image they had of you in their minds.
However, take this point with a word of caution. Any mental health practitioner will always tell you to uphold privacy, but should you suspect or learn that someone is at risk of inflicting serious injury themselves or on others, this is the only time that third parties (e.g.: other close connections or relevant authorities) have to be notified about their situation.
Gisa Paredes, a practicing clinical psychologist, adds her own advice.
#5: Learn about love languages.
No, it’s not cheesy to read about the five love languages and they are not limited to the context of romantic love. Family and friends can benefit from them just the same.
Learning about them gives you a meaningful starting point for what kind of help to give. After all, how many instances have you felt the desire to be there for someone but had the thought, “I want to help, but I don’t know how?” This is a remedy for moments like that.
“Try and identify what their love language is… Some people like quality time. They just need someone to sit there with them. They enjoy receiving presents. Others like acts of service. Other people like physical touch, so maybe they actually need a hug that will help them. These are very subtle ways of showing care and concern, and in a way that doesn’t make them feel like it’s too much,” Gisa shares. Finding out what someone needs to feel better can better direct your efforts at helping them out during a tough time.
#6: Be true to yourself.
Most of the pieces of advice listed here are for those who wish to help others. But what should we learn if it’s ourselves that we want to help?
Gisa keeps it simple: if you’re sad, be sad. It’s alright to be. As all psychologists will tell you, the only way out is through and this applies to experiencing negative emotions even when the intention is to get rid of them.
It might be counterintuitive to “embrace” loneliness, but it’s step one in the path to healing. One cannot beat an enemy, even an invisible one, without first acknowledging its presence.
“Whatever time of year it is, whatever it is you’re feeling, it’s always good to express it. Whether in writing to yourself in a journal or speaking to a friend or singing out loud or dancing, it needs to come out,” Gisa says.
“So whether this is you or someone that you know that you feel may need to be able to express something, welcome those emotions. Understand that they are a part of you and that these shadows or dark areas of ourselves teach us something,” she adds.
In the end, Gisa and Dr. Carandang provide one main takeaway for Filipino readers: if Christmas is a hard time for you, be your biggest ally. Relieve yourself of the pressure of “having” to be happy when the truth is, you are not. Sadness is part and parcel of the human experience and it’s normal to feel it cut more deeply during the holidays. Being Filipino does not make you immune to the pain Christmastime potentially brings.
If this is the situation you find yourself in, reach out to your most trusted connections—or to qualified professionals. There are many telepsychology services that have recently been established to help Filipinos with their mental health concerns, one of which is the Break Your Stigma website launched by local skincare brand BYS. Launched just this October, the made-for-Filipinos website has informative mental health resources and is an efficient way to discover psychological and psychiatric services privately.
Christmas can suck, that’s true. And the one next year and the year after that might, too.
But with proper care from others and most especially yourself, you might enjoy humming along to carols sooner than later.
Never forget that even though Christmas can be awful sometimes, but life as a whole doesn’t need to be.