It’s not the holiday music. It’s not the sappy movies with predictable endings. It might be the endless running from shop to shop (or site to site), but it feels like more than that. It’s the emptiness you feel when you leave your extended family, and you realize that you just don’t like them. You know you or your spouse are related to them, but you’re not sure how. It’s that nagging feeling that you can’t be you.
Burnout is defined as exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, and of these, the inefficacy criterion is key. When you feel like you don’t have any control, and you can’t make it better, you’re going to feel ineffective. You’re never more keenly aware of that than when you’re under stress.
Stressors come at you from many angles during the holidays. There’s the financial impact of the added expenses. There’s the time impact of shopping for everyone. More than that, there’s the stress of being around family. Though evolution designed stress for situations where our survival was threatened, as humans, we’ve adapted it for non-survival related things.
If you’re worried how you’ll be able to buy gifts for all the children, you’ll experience the same stress that our ancestors felt when they discovered there was a lion nearby. The only mitigating factor for us is our assessment of our capacity to address the stressor. If you believe you’ll be able to afford all the holiday gifts, then you won’t stress about their costs. However, nearly everyone has some form of stressor at the holidays, even if the stressor is called “in-laws” or – in some families – outlaws.
The big problem with stress is that it’s like a payday loan. It gets you what you need in the moment, but it comes at a high cost. Stress physiologically shuts down long-term processes – like digestion and immune system – to allow all your resources to be used for short-term challenges. The costs to our bodies to restart these processes – or run without them – is generally much more than leaving them going all the time.
It doesn’t exactly matter what you tell yourself about the relative degree of risk there is during the holidays. Except for a relatively small percentage of families, the gatherings don’t result in a call to the police or fire department (burning the food and setting off the smoke detector notwithstanding). Despite this, gatherings can be stressful. There’s the uncomfortable conversation you’d prefer to avoid that every cousin who hasn’t seen you will start. There are the overbearing parents who will ask you about when you’re going to have children, get married, get a job, or move out of the basement. These conversations may be uncomfortable enough to qualify, to your mind, as a threat to your survival.
It’s easy to say that you shouldn’t care about what your family thinks, but you grew up with the knowledge that you needed to care what they thought, because you depended upon them for your survival. The result is a deep-seated belief that a conflict with the family can be life-threatening to you – regardless of how true that is today.
The opposite side of the coin are those “still, dark moments” when you’re completely alone, and loneliness tries to creep its way into your consciousness. Loneliness isn’t about being alone. It’s about feeling like you’re alone. The underlying fear is that you will remain alone – forever. We feel the loss of relationship to others, whether it’s grandparents, parents, or estranged friends. That loneliness can feel pervasive and overwhelming even when it’s not.
It can feel like you’re always going to be alone. It can feel like no one can really know who you are and love you for who you are. It’s in this loneliness that some descend through burnout – a lack of hope – into despair. (If you believe that you might be or become suicidal, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org for assistance.)
However, the perception that anything will remain forever is just an illusion. The burnout you experience from the holidays, whether from the hustle or the hush, will fade away if you can realize that you’re not in danger, and the challenges you’re facing will fade. We can’t stop the stressors, but we can change the way we assess them.