Rachel Hershenberg Ph.D.

Activating Happiness

When Your Emotions Catch You Off Guard this Holiday Season

Feeling bad when things are good and feeling good when things are bad

Posted Dec 27, 2017

Emotions. Sometimes they take hold of you when you most expect it. And sometimes they take hold of you when you least expect it.

To those of you going through the holidays experiencing emotions surrounding recent loss or grief:

Perhaps a relationship ended, you’re feeling lonely, and/or this is the first holiday season after a loved one has passed. The emotions you were expecting have surely come about, including strong waves of sadness. You know your emotions are telling you that you miss this person deeply and that your life has irrevocably changed. 

Perhaps what you didn’t expect were the moments of feeling almost “normal.” You caught yourself laughing, gossiping, or flirting. Which may have led you just as suddenly to be overcome by guilt. You may have accused yourself for being a “bad,” “selfish” or “callous” person.

Though this topic is of course more complex than a brief post can address, I simply encourage you to remember that it is your resilience taking over that starts to enable you to experience a range of emotions. The ratio may still be 8 parts grief to 1 part non-grief, and as time passes, that ratio may switch to 7:2, 6:3, and so on. As time passes, and especially as you are surrounded by friends and family, it is expected that you will experience moments of mundane life, as well as moments of actual reverie, that will begin to function alongside the sadness and grief, too.  Give yourself permission to enjoy, just as you give yourself permission to be sad. There is room for both. Trust yourself and your instincts to navigate between them in due time.

To those of you going through the holidays unexpectedly sad despite things being OK:

Perhaps you are surrounded by those you love, no major stressful life events have taken place, and – for all intents and purposes – things are pretty much ok. When tapping into your capacity for gratitude, you recognize the bounty that surrounds you. You feel happy. 

Perhaps what you didn’t expect to feel were moments of nostalgia, of thinking about bygone relationships, or wondering what was or what could have been. Which may have led you just as suddenly to be overcome by guilt. You may have accused yourself of being disloyal, or you may have freaked yourself out that you’re still hung-up on someone or something that you thought you were “over.”

Though the richness of your relationships and life decisions are more complex than a brief post can address, I simply encourage you to not be afraid by these emotions and thoughts that pop up. Such memories are part of your history and form the life narrative that tells you how you got from one place in your past to another and, indeed, led you to where you are today.

I encourage you to set aside some time to honor these feelings, perhaps via a conversation with a trusted other. Or perhaps you keep them to yourself and take out your journal.  Maybe you look at old photos, listen to old music, and just reminisce. Give yourself a little time to honor whatever memories are popping up, and know that feelings of sadness over the past are normal and don’t necessarily imply that you want to change anything. Loss and change is an inevitable and painful part of life, and feeling that sense of loss doesn’t have to mean anything more than exactly that.

This holiday season, you will and likely have been experiencing a range of emotions, some of which were completely expected, and some of which may have taken you by surprise. This holiday season – and always – I encourage you to make space for your mixed emotions and trust in yourself that you have the capacity to welcome them all in.

Thanks for reading the 5th and final post in this 5-part holiday series. Be sure to check out part 1, Why the Guilt, part 2, Why the Embarrassment, part 3, Why the Resentment, and part 4, Why the Irritation