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Stop Pretending: How to Manage Difficult Emotions During the Holidays

By Michelle Farris, psychotherapist and relationship expert.


Enjoying the season doesn’t mean you have to pretend to be something you’re not. The ability to feel connected to others depends on your ability to honor your own experiences – no matter what you’re going through. 

This is the hallmark of self-care. 

If you’re struggling right now, you may be tempted to hide your feelings. You may think that you’re sparing other people from being dragged down by your mood but there is a price to pay for that.

You can’t feel joy when you can’t be yourself. 

Whether you’re happy, sad or resentful, finding healthy ways to honor where you’re at emotionally is the kindest way to manage the holidays. This blog focuses on how to get through the season no matter what’s happening.  

Here are some quick tips to handle difficult feelings so you can preserve the joy of the season.

Stop Pretending Everything is Fine

Pretending “you’re fine” when you’re struggling doesn’t work. 

When you can’t be honest, it’s hard to be emotionally present and enjoy the moment. Instead, your energy is spent trying to put on a happy face. Denying how you feel may avoid conflict but you risk feeling invisible in relationships. 

You unknowingly send the message that your feelings don’t count, and I don’t want that for you.

You might assume that sharing your struggles will bring others down but here’s the truth. What if by sharing your pain, you open the door for someone else to share theirs? 

At a Christmas party several years ago, I was grieving the loss of my father and ended up crying in the bathroom only to be joined by my cousin who was going through a divorce. 

Together we grieved and gave each other some much needed support. Being honest about my pain helped her feel comfortable sharing her pain.  

Being Honest Makes a Difference 

When you take the risk to be vulnerable, it’s an invitation for others to connect on a deeper level. Sharing your pain encourages them to do the same. However, it’s important to remember that not everyone is emotionally safe. Don’t attempt this with someone who is narcissistic or characteristically unsupportive. 

Boundaries are always the key to taking care of yourself especially when you’re feeling down.

Don’t Minimize How You Feel 

Many people don’t understand the importance of embracing difficult feelings. For instance, ignoring feelings of anger or denying other difficult emotions only serves to intensify them. 

Trust that there is a reason that you feel what you feel. Painful emotions like anger and resentment often signal us that something needs to change

How to Honor Your Feelings 

When something bothers you, let those feelings surface. This is not easy but stuffing them creates unnecessary stress physically and emotionally. It also contributes to isolation since it’s difficult to make healthy connections when you’re pretending not to feel.

To manage difficult feelings, work on identifying the emotions early before they become problematic. Denied feelings come back with a vengeance. Missing the early warning signs contributes to blowing up later. 

Here are a few early signs of anger and stress:

  • Rapid heart-rate and sweating

  • Muscle tension or feeling anxious

  • Negative thinking or assuming the worst

  • Using profanity, blame and criticism  

  • Feeling increasingly stressed or irritable

  • Using substances like food or alcohol to escape

Once you’ve identified how you feel, the next step is to find a way to honor it! Talking things out with someone you trust is ideal but sometimes you may prefer to keep your feelings private.

An Exercise for Managing Difficult Feelings

Journal writing is a great tool for expressing thoughts you’d rather not share publicly. Writing helps to express more intense feelings without hurting anyone including yourself. Consider this activity a “brain dump” – a way to vent what’s bothering you without censoring it. 

You may be tempted to re-read it later but don’t take the writing too seriously. In the heat of the moment, thoughts can get pretty ugly. That’s why this type of writing needs to be private. 

Next, write a letter to the person you are struggling with. Blast them if you need to because you will never send it. First drafts are for your eyes only to gain clarity on what action, if any, you should take. 

Third, find your part in the situation. This is the most challenging part because assuming “you haven’t done anything” keeps you from seeing your part in the situation. Consider something you could have said or done before, during or in reaction to what happened. 

Looking at your own behavior is where the gold is! 

By acknowledging your part in a painful situation, you can begin to feel empathy towards the other person. Your perspective changes because you’re no longer the victim. As a result your feeling of hurt and resentment will likely decrease. 

Examining your reaction helps to shift the story. Otherwise, it never changes and you stay stuck.

Keeping your feelings to yourself is not the healthier choice. Minimizing the hurt makes it hard to feel a part of the festivities. Even if you never confront the person directly, writing helps you understand what went wrong and how you can improve things in the future.

Find Healthy Outlets for Managing Emotions 

Having healthy outlets for handling emotions is important. Whether it’s hitting the gym or reading a good book, find ways to practice self-care. 

Introverts often need quiet time away from people. Reading a good book or spending time alone in nature can be replenishing. Extroverts need connection and activity. Knowing what comforts you goes a long way to being able to cope. 

Healthy outlets for handling difficult feelings:

  • Vigorous exercise

  • Start writing in a journal  

  • Quiet time or mediation

  • Joining a support group

  • Starting a hobby or fulfilling a dream

  • Volunteering for a worthy cause

  • Talking things out with a trusted friend

  • Seeking professional help if needed

Final Thoughts

Finding ways to take care of yourself will make the holidays more manageable. Plan out how you will handle social situations without having to pretend everything is fine. You may choose not to attend certain events especially if you don’t feel safe to be yourself. Just remember, being authentic is a gift you can give yourself and those you love

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