Understanding the Grinch
Photo credit: Aled Lewis
The holidays bring happiness to so many of us. The very idea of holidays inspires images of families smiling and laughing, feasting over perfectly cooked meals and sharing in the joy of being together. How could anyone hate this "most wonderful" time of year? That being said, most of us know someone who is a “Grinch” - an individual who does not share a love for the holidays and literally cringes at the thought of casseroles, Christmas carols, and gift giving. The Grinch is a character who has a great disdain for the Holiday spirit, but who eventually comes to learn to love, and love the Holiday Season as well. But who are these real life Grinches, and are they truly angry and isolated characters, similar to those portrayed in many of the holiday films?
Odds are you have a Grinch in your midst and you don’t even know it. Many of us cannot fathom wishing the holidays would pass us by and have trouble understanding why someone may be irritable and less than pleasant during the season. Don’t worry, there are things that you can do to support a Grinch, but first, it’s important to understand where they are coming from. Let’s take a moment to dissect what influences this archetype and increase our empathy for individuals who shun the holidays.
The Trap of Picture Perfect
Dominant popular culture has long since carved out a very clear picture of what the holidays are supposed to look like; Families coming together, friends reuniting, tables full of delicious food just waiting to be feasted upon, and finally, the all important gift exchange. Take a moment to reflect back on your very first sentiments about the holiday season. What iconic memories frame your experience? Regardless of what the holidays mean to you or the images and memories that are brought forward, a common thread unites us in our holiday experience. The holiday season may invoke feelings of magic and excitement. These emotions are closely related to innocence of childhood – a time in life when endless possibilities existed. It is one of the main reasons many look forward to this time of year. However, for many this image is not rooted in any real experience, but in a carefully curated idea.
American holiday ideology has been largely crafted by commercialism. Imagery and connotations taken from religion and culture are repurposed and sold. Simply put, advertisers have worked to promote a stylized and near-perfect holiday ideal in order to literally “sell the dream.” This carefully contrived ideal suggests that holidays are one of the most joyous times of the year. It conveys messages of togetherness, forgiveness, selflessness, celebration, and gratitude. While these messages appear positive on the surface, this "holiday logic" leaves little room for a less-than-perfect attitude or experience. This notion that everything connected to the holidays should be perfect is an unrealistic way of thinking. It is the formidable task of fulfilling holiday norms and expectations that cause people to begin to feel overwhelmed.
The Association of Psychology found that almost half of women and one third of men experience an increase in stress around the holidays. People become frustrated and disappointed as they strive to emulate the unobtainable, which can lead to larger problems of anxiety and depression. It is important to note that reading over these statistics can put a damper on anyone’s holiday cheer. However, the holidays can be extremely difficult for many people. Perhaps they internalize their feelings of contempt for your cheer, but that can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. By de-stigmatizing mental health and social issues through dialogue, we are better prepared to support loved ones and members of our community that may be misunderstood.
Managing Hurts and Losses
The main focus of the holiday season is creating rituals of connection and spending time with loved ones. In many ways the holidays tend to be a time that causes people to pay attention to their surroundings. The media blasts images of families enjoying one another’s company, re-connecting, and forgiving past hurts. These narratives tend to magnify what people are missing in life. For example, holiday movies present themes where a “Scrooge” inspired character comes home for the holidays, re-joins their family, and discovers acceptance and a genuine appreciation for their loved ones. Happy endings are what people wish for. Many even expect them for themselves. Due to Hollywood narratives, the holiday seasons are perceived as the perfect time to reclaim lost relationships, make amends and set past wrongs right. Unfortunately, life is not scripted and holiday miracles are not reliable. Therefore, when a slighted person’s attempts are met with resistance or conflict, feelings of rejection and disappointment can cement their avoidance and isolation.
The holidays are a time when families engage in larger societal rituals, such as buying presents or decorating homes with strands of twinkling lights. However, many traditions are unique to the individual and have been influenced by experiences within in their family of origin. These traditions are more personal and associated with particular loved ones. For example, traditions might include baking cookies with your grandmother or lighting the Menorah with your partner. But when a person looses someone they care for, whether it is through death, divorce, or general distance, these once fun and meaningful rituals and traditions can disappear or become painful. These acts and surrounding memories can sting by reminding people of what they do not have. This can be terribly painful, and without proper support, individuals can deal with their pain in less than healthy ways. Negative reactions can include defensive, critical, or avoidant behavior as the individual attempts to process feelings of unresolved grief.
How to Support a Grinch
1. Create Space.
Allow these individuals to talk about what they are feeling. Listen with a non-judgmental and kind heart. Understand we all have different experiences, which color the way we respond to life. If the holidays trigger memories for your loved one that are difficult to deal with, support them by actively listening. Start by checking in with them to see what they need in the moment. Work to carve out a non-judgmental and empathetic space in your relationship, so they can speak to what they are feeling. A natural instinct is to fix the problem that is causing pain. Unfortunately, not all problems have an easily definable solution. In fact, this route may actually make things worse by shutting a person down. A more effective approach is to acknowledge and validate how they are feeling. Support your loved one by being present and allowing the pain and the tears to come forth.
Traditions are one of many experiences that can bring forth memories. Memories can be especially painful when they are related to a loss of some kind. Grief is a tricky animal and aspects of it can show up in a multitude of ways and long after the loss has occurred. Social situations come with expectations. It is these unsaid rules of proper engagement that can cause feelings of being overwhelmed. Experiencing pressure to behave or respond in a certain manner increases stress. It is helpful to assist love ones in identifying events or activities that are triggering. Do not attempt to push them out of their comfort zone or pressure them to do things that make them feel uncomfortable. Accept the fact that their relationship with the holidays is complicated and be okay with that.
3. Create New Traditions.
A theme that comes with the holiday season is control, and for those who have disdain for holiday cheer, is most likely feeling that some element of this time a year is out of their control. Work with your loved one to take control over and grow emotionally by creating new rituals of connections. Acknowledge that the presentation of what happy holidays are suppose to look like is a myth created by media narratives. Everyone celebrates in different ways and how they celebrate changes as life does. If particular aspects of holiday traditions are to painful, pitch the idea of creating totally new experiences and traditions to reflect the positives of their life at the current moment. These newly formed traditions can be as simple as decorating your cactus instead of a tree to going out to eat at a favorite restaurant instead of cooking a large meal. This provides those who are struggling with a sense of autonomy during this time of year and decreases expectations, and in turn, stress. Whatever you and your loved one comes up with, support them in the importance of this new way of celebrating.
Do you have a Grinch in your life? Is it your partner, neighbor or maybe even yourself? If you are reading this article and it resonates with you, or if you have had difficulties navigating the holiday, questioning your own experience, or simply need some extra support, I invite you to contact me for a counseling session. Regardless, it is critical to recognize that people are not one-dimensional characters, and for the most part, they have good reasons for their reactions and behaviors. So the next time that you find yourself face-to-face with a Grinch, take a moment to pause, reflect on these steps, and employ some compassion. It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give any time of year.
I whole-heartedly believe engaging in therapy cultivates a unique experience where individuals can process their hopes, fears, and excitement over entering into this relationship with themselves, their child, and partner. If you would like to schedule an appointment with myself, or any of the other team members at Austin STRONG: Relationship Building Center, please visit www.austinstrongrbc.com where you can easily book an appointment online that fits with your personal schedule.
– Jamie Mayo-Buttry, M.A., LPC-Intern, LCDC-Intern, Licensed Mediator