Christmas – it can be the best of times, or it can be the worst of times. It's a season you may love or hate.
For many people, the holidays are a time of connecting with loved ones, exchanging thoughtful gifts, attending concerts, and eating way too many shortbread cookies. It can be a time of reflecting on how we can make a positive difference in the world, and it can be an opportunity to tell someone how much we love them. Christmas can be a very delightful time of the year.
But Christmas can also go horribly wrong.
We have all heard the accounts of terrible arguments over turkey dinner, fully decorated Christmas trees tossed out on the lawn, smashed gifts, and angry departures from family gatherings. And, too often, excessive amounts of alcohol or other mood-altering substances contribute to the chaos.
If we want to make sense of the problematic and chaotic experiences, we first need to understand things from the perspective of those who have a favourable view of the holidays. What happens in those families or relationships that makes time together during the holiday season something to look forward to?
People who love Christmas tend to have reasonably healthy relationships. They likely have enough meaningful connections to make the holidays enjoyable. Some folks even look forward to Christmas because it creates opportunities to spend time with the people they love. Even if the festivities aren’t fantastic, they probably have enough healthy relationships outside of their family that help them survive and enjoy some of the beautiful aspects of the season. This kind of positive relational experience underscores one of our most basic human needs – our need for connection.
We are biologically wired to need and want meaningful attachments with other people.
Abraham Maslow developed a theory about our hierarchy of needs. He identified a sense of love and belonging as a fundamental need that must be met if we are to reach our fullest potential as human beings. Advances in neuroscience provide the data to back up this theory. We now have a greater understanding of how vital attachment relationships are and how they help shape our brain as well as our emotional patterns.
But what happens if you feel a clear sense of discomfort about getting together with loved ones for Christmas. Your family experiences might not leave you feeling “peace on earth” and “goodwill to all”. In fact, Christmas may highlight the realities of pain, loss, trauma, and broken relationships. This brings us to another of our most basic human needs – our need for safety and the freedom from fear.
For those who have had painful or traumatic relationship experiences (in your family or outside of it), Christmas can become a time of conflicting emotions, needs, and behaviours. It can highlight the battle that exists between:
• The emotions of love and fear.
• The needs for connection and self-protection.
• The instinctive behaviours that move us towards or away from others.
Maslow believed that human needs are ordered in a hierarchy and that we are only able to move up this ladder if the needs in the category below are adequately met. Maslow ranked our need for freedom from fear as more fundamental than our need for connection. If you take a moment to allow that to sink in, it helps us understand why holiday times can be tricky. And why substance abuse often increases, especially for people with challenging relationships.
How does a person make it through the Christmas season when these two needs, for self-protection and connection, conflict with each other at family events? There may be a few reasons that you (or others) may drink too much at Christmas. They are also the same reasons for relying on other mood-altering substances or behaviours as well. Here are three reasons you or someone you love may drink too much at Christmas:
1. The people you are spending time with are also those who have harmed you.
The holidays are filled with expectations of spending time with the people closest to us. But how do you handle the challenge of spending time with someone who has harmed you? What if you experience a strong urge to protect yourself and would prefer to avoid an unhealthy or unsafe person but expectations or circumstances make them impossible to avoid? Or what do you do with the confusion created by still wanting a relationship with someone who has severely wounded or traumatized you in the past? Which need wins out: the need for connection or the need for self-protection?
Sometimes, alcohol or other drugs help dampen anger or fear so that it becomes possible to interact with someone who triggers your self-protection response.
2. Your loved ones are not the ones responsible for the significant past traumas, but your alarm-system keeps you fearful they could harm you.
We are hardwired for self-preservation. Judith Herman is one of the foremost researchers in the field of trauma. She says this: “After a traumatic experience, the human system of self-preservation seems to go onto permanent alert as if the danger might return at any moment.” And it can be challenging to turn that alarm system off even when you want to.
One of my past supervisors often used this analogy: getting bit by a dog might leave someone feeling significant fear every time they encounter a dog after that. It’s like their brain says, “You’re not the dog that bit me – but you’re a dog, and you could bite me.” Well, we often have a similar reaction when we have had painful and traumatic relationship experiences. “You’re not the person that ‘bit’ me – but you’re a person, and you could bite me.”
Once again, alcohol and other substances help dampen the fear responses. But, in this situation, the fear response may be more about unresolved past traumas rather than a threat occurring in the present moment.
3. You experience shame, anger, or a sense of inadequacy that heightens the difficulty connecting with loved ones.
Those who struggle with substance abuse often experience an overwhelming sense of shame or inadequacy. For some, this profound sense of self-loathing creates a strong desire to withdraw or avoid connection. There may be a deep desire to isolate, numb out, and shut down. If your substance abuse has negatively impacted your loved ones, a sense of guilt might make you want to avoid contact with them entirely.
Sometimes, people cover up a sense of inadequacy with grandiosity or hard work. Perhaps you ease your shame by going overboard with excessive gift-giving. Or you wear yourself out trying to get the best gift for absolutely everyone on your list. Or you host the perfect Christmas event. But you end up exhausted and feeling that it wasn’t quite good enough.
Drugs or alcohol help soothe the painful experience of guilt, shame, and self-loathing momentarily and can make the unbearable situation a little more bearable.
Many people who drink too much over the holidays often use substance use as a “survival tool”. While it isn’t a healthy choice, it’s often seen as the best way to cope with a painful situation. The first step towards shifting this kind of an unhealthy pattern is increased awareness about why it’s happening.
The second step is beginning to make small changes in the direction of greater health. This can include finding ways to move out of self-protection and into connection with healthy people. It may mean you need to set some boundaries with an unhealthy person in your life. Or you might offer yourself some kindness and self-compassion.
This Christmas, I hope you find something that helps you move out of fear and into a deeper experience of “peace on earth” and “goodwill to all”. May it be your Christmas gift to yourself.