Preparing For Holy Pain

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- Joseph Sanok, MA, LLP, LPC, NCC

We just had a baby in May. I say “we”, but it was my wife who endured five days of contractions, drank Castor oil to induce labor, and used no medication. So often we forget what Mary and Joseph went through to get to the moment of birth. We quickly move past the messy birth to “O Holy Night”.

Next to familial connection, celebration, and joyfulness, there is often a holy pain that sits with the wrapped presents. During the time from Halloween to New Years, there is a string of holidays that reminds us of who is with us and who is not. Whether through physical death, death of a friendship, boundaries we have set to help hold back toxic relatives, or a marriage that has fallen apart, usually there is someone missing and it hurts. 

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On top of reminders of who is missing, it is the darkest part of the year. UV light triggers vitamin D to release serotonin and dopamine, the “feel good” chemicals that regulate our mood. Biologically, as we get less light, we have the potential feel darker on the inside as well.

Lastly, these holidays put a spotlight on where we are in life. In the spirit of catching up with family we directly enter into Eric Erickson’s stages of psychomotor development. During the ages of 19-40 most people ask, “Will I be loved?” and “How can I contribute to the world?” Our feeling of where we stand compared to peers and family can encourage or discourage us. Are we loved and does what we do matter? Or, are we alone and feel that we’re going nowhere?

As we address our own loss of people, light, and expectations, there are some strategies that work to grow and thrive during the holidays.  

1. Acknowledge Loss

When we lose people, it is usually a direct reflection of the love we have or had for them. So often we want to quickly move through these feelings, but by doing so we are not taking the time to process the loss of a love that had an impact. Find a clear way to acknowledge the loss, honor the relationship, and realize that it may never be how it was.

2. Get More Light

Regular lights do not capture the full light spectrum. They usually only have the blues and violets. Getting outside and sitting by a window will help, but changing some of your bulbs in your office or home to full-spectrum light bulbs can really help. A number of studies have shown that full-spectrum light can help with depression, sadness, and the feelings of blah (blah is not a clinical term used in research studies). Bulbs usually run $14-$24 dollars, a lot cheaper than therapy.

3. Don’t feel you have to compete

Where are you in life? You have nothing to prove to others, you are fine how you are. Of course you can grow and change, but you do not need to feel that you have to prove yourself during the holidays. 

Something happens when we allow ourselves to feel pain in a new way. Mary and Joseph did not just feel pain during the birth, they had to figure out how to get to Jerusalem with an infant for the dedication ceremony (now that is a miracle in my mind), move to Egypt with an infant, and adjust to the Jewish community there, while missing their family back in Nazareth. The pain of this time of year has the potential to push us to set new boundaries with toxic family members, focus on becoming more emotionally healthy, and savor the wonderful people that we have in our lives, even if they cause us holy pain.

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Joseph R. Sanok  is the owner of Mental Wellness Counseling and Clinical Director for The Maritime Heritage Alliance. He is frequent speaker and writer on counseling and family issues. He has Master's degrees in Community Counseling and Counseling Psychology from Western Michigan University. Follow him: @JosephSanokwww.facebook.com/mentalwellnesscounseling, or sign up for his Parenting and Wellness Newsletter www.mentalwellnesscounseling.com.