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Shall we talk a little about gratitude today? Tis the season, at least in the US. (Canadians, please join the discussion with your more temperate perspective, having celebrated weeks ago.)

Here’s what Steve Sando, found of Rancho Gordo Beans has to say about the Thanksgiving holiday, “No presents to buy. A focus on food. Surrounding yourself with people you like. Traditions are celebrated, but most of us leave room for some innovation. What’s not to like?”

He has a point. Several! And of course I listen when the king of beans speaks. However, as a life coach, I often work with people for whom the holidays are hard and gratitude is not the primary emotional experience of the season. These include people who get coaching specifically for the purpose of making it through the holidays.

The reasons are many and often include: A focus on food, which is difficult for some. Being surrounded by people that maybe we actually don’t like. Traditions that don’t leave room for innovation. Plus, no presents.

If your experience coming to the end of the year is anything like, “Ugh the holidays, this is hard, I’m supposed to be soaking in gratitude and I just can’t right now,” here are some thoughts on how to cope.

Unshame your feelings, and give yourself the gift of honesty. Yes, of course, we all know that feeling grateful is what “good people” do. But though feelings can be nurtured, they cannot be forced. And if you are not feeling it, it’s only going to feel worse to pretend.

Here’s a formula for truth-telling that I got from novelist and psychonaut Ayelet Waldman: Put your hand on your heart, and say to yourself, “You poor thing! You are [feeling extremely ungrateful] right now! That’s okay! We’re going to be okay.” Or as self-help guru Mama Gena says: “Any way you feel is a right way to feel.” That’s as good a mantra as I’ve ever found.

Be an ally to yourself as above, but also know you’re not alone. There are 8 billion of us on the planet, and a lot are in forced holiday mode. I bet you can get some solidarity. Friendsgiving thrives for a reason.

And speaking of coping, what is your copium? I see no shame in using what works this time of year: extra Netflix, extra escaping/“taking walks,” extra helpings of wasabi mashed potatoes. If you know what gets you through, use it.

(Also: There’s no shame in hitting the copium at any time of year. Sure, thriving is better than coping. But coping is better than not coping, so. That’s some advanced life coach knowledge for ya!

Sometimes holiday mode imposes so much that we need to dial everything else way down. Again, no shame! Other times it would help to go hard on something. In Wintering, Katherine May writes about her discovery of cold water plunging, and the boost it gives her energy and mood. I have found the same. Cold exposure is obviously not for everyone, but if there’s something you’ve been thinking about trying, this could be your moment. Systems like novelty!

Not to risk sounding all schadenfreude, but some of the folks who seem to be in Super Jolly Holiday mode might actually be struggling a little themselves. If you can’t tell, just mentally extend compassion anyway. (If it’s within reach. Compassion can be easier than gratitude, but not necessarily.)

Finally, maybe Thanksgiving would be better with presents? When I look ahead to my holiday, I think it’ll be good to treat myself to a nice book.

May these suggestions be of use! And I know you all have more. Please add your hard-won seasonal wisdom to the comments below.

Image credit: Still Life with a Roemer, Jan Davidsz. de Heem, 1652. Used with permission.

About The Author

Max Daniels is a research-based life coach whose weekly emails make us laugh with recognition and rethink everything we thought we knew.

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  • COPIUM!!! Excellent idea! Mine wiil be, I hope, more knitting.

  • Hi Max, during the holidays when I am not feeling up to it, I leave lots of space, keep social schedule light in past I have overscheduled trying to get involved when really quiet time is what I needed. I tended to enjoy the social aspects more this way. Quiet time knitting, sewing or a nice glossy magazine. Spending more time in winter.

  • Thank you for this

  • How lovely and wise! Thank you- slowed me down and made me smile already.

    • Reclaiming my space after everyone is gone ! Getting all the towels and sheets laundered, putting the puzzle away , unfinished , and do I care? No way!
      Opened a lovely present to myself from Signature Needles, a sock knitting kit with the most gorgeous teal color! In my happy place with knitting in hand ️

  • Thank you for your words of wisdom. The holidays are tough for me. I’ll take your copium.

  • I always look forward to reading your columns and this one did not disappoint. Thank you.

  • Your column resonated with me today. We adopted an elderly Labrador retriever last January. Since we have an unfenced property, I walk her 4-5 times a day regardless of weather – sunshine, rain, snow, sleet, wind. I didn’t expect that being outside multiple times everyday for almost a year would elevate my daily mood and happiness. To my surprise I particularly enjoy the bad weather days, the days when I would have never willingly left the house. These frequent and sometimes brief walks have chased away my occasional mood dips and malaise. Adding a dog to my life has been the best and most unexpectedly pleasant self-care.

    • I know what you mean about the value of being out in weather! It is amazing what a mood lifter it is to put on the right clothes and GO OUT. I was just pledging to myself that I would go out for enough time that I felt at home in the weather every day this winter.

    • GRK, I know what you mean about the value of dogs. We have had two rescue hounds for two years, and when I feel down, they inevitably boost me back up with their antics (one is about three years old and the other about two years old, a father-daughter pair). They make every day brighter just by being who they are.

  • I totally agree about walking, I’m always glad I got out of the house and did it. Thank you Max for this sensitive post.

  • Shout out for Rancho Gordo!! Very good advice. Plus a lovely pot of soothing beans doesn’t hurt.

    • This year the holidays are anything but joyful for me. Every aspect of them gives me severe knots in my stomach. Not because of too much to do or accomplish, just my life at this time. Having to pretend is super difficult. Even knitting which always relaxes me , has not been working. I am now trying to tell myself the Arne & Carlos ornaments I was planning for my family members is not going to happen.

  • Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because of the food AND no presents….in my humble opinion.

  • Your comments are very perceptive, and helpful. I am the mother of 4 adults and when they were small, Christmas was total chaos. It was years before I realized that a lot of the moms who appeared to be totally caught up in the holidays were just counting the days until it was over. My coping trick is to have a book which I have been looking forward to reading to start/dip into during the holiday chaos. This year, that book is the newest Diana Gabaldon title. I definitely find Thanksgiving easier because it is one day, not an entire season. Also, here in Toronto, the weather is usually more cooperative in October than in December.

  • Must be missing something because I don’t see the King of Beans being quotable and anything except maybe.. beans But the bigger issue here is you failed to mention and even more important, difficult, and widespread reason for people to struggle with holidays: the death of a loved one. Two friends lost their husbands earlier this year and facing the string of Thanksgiving/Christmas and similar/New Year holidays is an intense, immense burden that won’t be helped by the somewhat light suggestions given to get through dinner with the annoying relative.

    • At the risk of sounding horrible – I think this actually IS covered in the above. Max is talking about not feeling the cuddly/bubbly/gratitude/whatever we’re “supposed to” for the holidays and honoring our emotions. Grief is an emotion we are, as a culture, exceptionally bad at dealing with.

      “Unshame yourself” she says. It’s ok to own your grief, to acknowledge it, to be in it.

      It’s also ok to be irritated with (probably?) well-meaning relatives and friends who don’t understand your pain. Honor that by limiting your contact time, or by letting people know what you are or aren’t up for. Honor it in others by being sensitive about it but not just ignoring the topic. Acknowledge this with your friends – see if they think the holidays will be extra hard this year. Invite them to let you know what would be supportive, and let them know you won’t judge if they do or don’t want to carry on as before, or change their minds midstream.

      Traditions like all the holiday shenanigans can be comforting and they can be difficult as they shift… and still comforting, or worth changing.

      • I was a “well meaning” person who invited others to just Thanksgiving dinner. 15 years ago, I included 2 women with a husband and a mother passing in the past two years. My motivation, besides wanting to be with them and family, was my fear of being alone. Now I’ve read enough to know you can offend people with anything you say or do. Alas, I am alone a few years later, suffering like they probably did, from not saying what I need.

        It’s ok to be well intentioned. At least you’re trying to be kind.

  • I hope everyone can find something to be thankful for, even if it is not within the Thanksgiving Day tradition.

  • I’ve had an epiphany this year and pat myself on the back for recognizing and acting on it. I turned 85 this year and have always been the matriarch who makes amazing gifts (even dog sweaters) brings special dishes to all celebrations and in general keeps up THE TRADITIONS!! Ha! I found my “no” and you know what, no push back at all. My family nodded and clapped and I realize I’ve been “allowed” my new status to enjoy what they provide. In a way I’ve gotten out of the way of my loved ones so they can go forward with new traditions. Will I miss some of the “ooos” and “ahhs?” Maybe. But I am so excited to let go I think not too much.

    • Well done, Tiferet! Letting go seems essential to the practice of accepting whatever we are feeling, allowing changes to come, & possibly even realizing we can enjoy things from a different stance. For me, the pandemic years have been a great re-set for holidays. I realized my favorite part is getting nice cards & sending them out with a note or more as wished. So now I make plenty of room to do that, regardless of whatever else happens (hint: not much & that’s fine by me!) Getting older has helped with the less is more approach.

      • Yes, Mary! Less is more. Such a truism hidden in happy aging. Thanks.

  • PS: That book Wintering is about wayyyy more than cold plunges. It has a beautifully empathetic take on the times (regardless of planetary season) we all ‘fall through the cracks” into another reality, as with grief. Highly recommend.

    • Totally agree about Wintering. I have it on my nightstand and re-read it every November as the days shorten and the weather turns cold. It’s always a balm to my soul.

  • Sometimes I struggle to remember that ‘No” is a complete sentence.
    I have trouble with trying to not get irritated by all of the hype and commercialism surrounding the season so years ago, when our children were still young I made a Christmas Day Rule,….everyone has to hang out in pajamas all day and read and play.

  • I find myself missing those no longer with us and so I try to do something I used to do with my mom, grandmom and favorite aunt- bake cookies. As a little girl I was always the helper in mixing and decorating and , of course, eating. We had a family favorite recipe for sugar cookies and each year I mentally make this with those I love and miss. The smells and tastes take me back to the time when I was little and holidays we’re uncomplicated

  • It is so true that holidays can be difficult for so many people and for so many different reasons. Since I was 12 years old, I’ve had my share. That’s when I started to lose my mother, not to death and dying, but to a disease of the central nervous system. She lived just shy of 40 years after her diagnosis (the doctors had only given her 15 years tops) and spent the last 20 years of her life quadriplegic, bed ridden, and on a ventilator. We took care of her at home; she never went to long term care. Holidays were difficult. I created one tradition for myself. I would buy all of the holiday issues of the top five popular women’s magazines and read all of the “heartwarming” holiday stories. It was one of the many ways that I tried to create a sort of family life for myself when mine had kind of fallen apart.

  • I am one of the lucky ones who actually loves and gets along with everyone in my birth family, from my parents on down to my nieces and their kids. And I have not lost any close family members, I am grateful for all of that! Truly and heartfelt. But still … I find Thanksgiving difficult and will practice being ok with that and finding a way to deal. It is the noise, mainly. Also the travel (several hours in the car which I know is nothing compared to other peoples travel chaos but it is hard for me). The heat in my parents house. I always have a massive headache by the end of the day and then need to face the drive home.

    So, that is going to happen … acknowledged! Friday is going to be a “everyone leave me alone I am knitting” day and no responsibilities, no regrets.

  • Will wonders never cease Max? You bring us the king of beans, toss in Mama Gena and unshaming our feelings. I’m delighted again.

  • Great advice and great new word (“copium”), especially if it’s something healthy like walking!

  • Thank you for this article. your articles are always on time (meaning it is just what I needed to regroup on)and I enjoy reading them!

  • So glad I saved this one in my in-box, Max (and MDK). Though it’s weeks since Thanksgiving of course, the wisdom and humor of Max’s post abides. As does Steve at Rancho Gordo and his brilliant beans, recipes, and insights.

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