A child frowning while holding prop cartoon lips to their mouth, maybe being forced to engage in toxic holiday joy!

How to Survive Toxic Holiday Joy


written by Rebecca Slaby

The winter holidays are upon us, and while this season is characterized by joy and giving, I would like to acknowledge the challenges of these holidays for so many people for so many different reasons. Society would have us believe they are all about family and friends coming together in joy, love, and celebration. While this is true for some, for many of us, winter holidays (including Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, the New Year, and more) can be stressful, overwhelming, and triggering of past traumas, grief, and loss.

A lot has been written and talked about the dangers of toxic positivity as a form of gaslighting of the real struggles, hurts, and harms. One of my favorite authors and podcasters, Kate Bowler, explains toxic positivity as “an overemphasis on the idea that our mindsets determine our reality…Our minds are powerful, but forcing our minds to conjure up optimism is not always healthy. American culture got hooked on the idea that everything is possible for those who believe. But the casualty is honesty. We overemphasize our own abilities and end up saddling ourselves with unnecessary shame and frustration. Life is hard enough without imagining that we are not simply suffering, but failing.”

I think we can apply this concept of toxic positivity to winter holidays as a season of toxic joy and unreasonable expectations for what it means to celebrate this time of year, especially for those of us who experience this as a time of loneliness, isolation, social anxiety, loss of people in our lives, loss of what once was or what could/should have been, big and small life changes, or financial strain and pressure. This is in addition to all the people who are effectively left out this season, starting with Indigenous people during Thanksgiving, due to personal, cultural, or religious beliefs and practices that lie outside the dominant Judeo-Christian norm in America.

Yet, we still persist with a societal narrative that if we just love, forgive, or believe enough, then our lives will be better and our problems will be solved. And then the new year rings in with hope and expectation that everything will be different and shinier from now on if we just stick to our New Year’s resolutions. We have whole industries that survive on this unhealthy and unhelpful narrative – everything from the Hallmark channel to decorative pillows with “Live Your Best Life Now”, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, and “New Year, New You” slogans.

A sign reading, "Happy New Year," atop of holiday decorations, including golden balloons, confetti, and a champagne bottle

What happens to us when we don’t actively and outwardly embody holiday spirit? We experience a cognitive dissonance between what we think we should be feeling and experiencing as joy, happiness, forgiveness, or unconditional love and what we are actually feeling and experiencing due to our real-life circumstances. This dissonance can engender in us guilt that we aren’t meeting others’ expectations, shame that there is something wrong with us because we’re not joyful like everyone else, or alienation when we can’t connect with others from our own authenticity.

So here are three things we can do to mitigate the stress and unrealistic expectations of this holiday season:

  1. Take time to notice moments of DELIGHT. In his book of essays, The Book of Delights, poet Ross Gay offers us this concept of delight (as opposed to joy or gratitude) to center us in a particular moment of feeling good and the engagement of our senses, even in the midst of the agonies of life. Like a child who, in the midst of a tantrum, suddenly stops to inspect a rock on the ground or taste the salt of their tears, can you stop for a moment when something catches your own, sparks some curiosity or wonder, tickles your senses, or connects you with the world around you? 
  2. Live into the both/and and hold multiple truths at the same time. You can experience delight, joy, gratitude, love and fear, anxiety, grief, loss, disappointment at the same time, in the same moment. One emotion does not have to cancel out the other, and there does not have to be guilt or shame in experiencing any or all of our emotions.
  3. Extend grace to yourself and to others. Grace does not have to mean forgiveness or a free pass for rude, harmful, or abusive behavior. Grace can simply be a deep breath that allows you to reflect and respond instead of react. It can be recognizing that your truth is valid as well as someone else’s truth, even if they are in direct opposition to each other. It can be starting from the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have in the moment, even if their best isn’t what you need or want. Grace allows us to enter into or opt out of relationships or situations in ways that align with our integrity and values and keep us authentically in ourselves. And when we extend grace to ourselves first, that we are not perfect, that we are doing our best, and that we are worthy and enough in our own right without having to prove or earn it, then we can more easily extend it to others. 

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