As holiday expectations awaken nostalgic feelings of how life could be and merge with “the stuff that dreams are made of,” disillusionment abounds. The power of these wistful longings can take us by surprise amidst the demands of our busy lives. As seen in the group interactions below, added bumps in the road can impose unsettling ‘shoulds’ that make it difficult to contain disappointment in a season when cheerfulness is the holiday norm.
Lauren started the group session by saying she was feeling awkward and embarrassed about an upset that occurred during a phone call with her friend Jake. She reminded the group that she first met Jake when he dated her college roommate. Since they have jobs near each other, they continue to spend a lot of time together even though their friendship is strictly platonic. When Lauren recently called Jake to arrange a holiday get-together, she was shaken when he said he had a date. In group, she mumbled under her breath that she thought she was just being silly.
Mike, a long-time group member, was concerned that Lauren was minimizing her feelings and said he wanted to know more about what was upsetting her. The rest of the group echoed his concern.
Lauren told us she really didn’t understand why she was taken aback when Jake said he had a dinner date with Sarah, a co-worker of hers whom he met when Lauren took Jake to a work event. Lauren told us she felt a jolt of jealousy and wasn’t able to sufficiently mask this feeling. She could hear Jake’s discomfort as he explained how networking with Sarah seemed to be a good idea since they were in the same field. Lauren told us she hurriedly agreed with him, adding that Sarah had always seemed nice; then she abruptly ended the phone call. Lauren admitted that she was surprised by her intense feelings and asked the group if they thought her feelings reflected some latent romantic interest in Jake.
John asked Lauren if she felt abandoned by Jake. Lauren said she was mostly feeling left out of the loop with him and that, if not for the scheduling conflict, she wouldn’t even know about Jake’s interest in Sarah. John countered that her implied supposition - that if she didn’t know about it, it wouldn’t have bothered her - was irrelevant, because she does know about it and it is causing her pain!
Christa said she was curious about John’s agitation but that she first wanted to tell Lauren how much she understood her feelings because of a similar experience. She told Lauren how she was surprised by feelings of anger, jealousy and disappointment when she inadvertently found out that Ruth, her ex, was included in a get-together with friends they had known as a couple for over a decade. Even though she knew she wouldn’t have wanted to be included, she said, “It really hurts to be left out!” Christa then added that it was soothing to focus on the good things in her life, including being in this group.
Mike said he didn’t want to be insensitive but that he identified with Jake wanting a real girlfriend. He said he is hoping to meet someone - maybe at one of the holiday parties - before he heads home to his family’s incessant inquiries about “settling down.” Separate from that pressure, Mike explained that he actually feels ready for someone special to come into his life, to be with during the holidays and beyond.
Mary added that her teenage daughters struggle weekly with stinging disappointment and pain about who’s in and who’s out with this friend or that clique. That these shifts occur regularly with lightning speed doesn’t make handling these difficulties any easier for her or them. Addressing Lauren directly, she said, “Of course it is upsetting to discover that your friendship with Jake is changing.”
As the group connected with Lauren, themselves and each other, I was aware of John struggling with some difficult emotions. I asked him if he had a personal connection to his concern that Lauren had been abandoned. He said he sensed a lot of sadness in the group and that it reawakened the loneliness he continues to feel during the holidays ever since his mother died when he was fourteen. John said, “I miss how she made the holidays wonderful with smells, music, decorations, laughter and joy. Without her, every year the holidays are a sad stretch of time from Thanksgiving to New Years for everyone in my family.” As tears pooled in John’s eyes, Christa let him know she now understood what was going on for him earlier when he confronted Lauren. John nodded his appreciation to her and to the group.
This holiday season summons early memories and experiences. For some, these are heartwarming remembrances. Others hope that this year a meaningful connection will somehow materialize in the glow of holiday cheer, a connection that will magically satisfy their deepest yearnings. Fantasies of holiday dreams coming true can actually make us more vulnerable to disappointment and inadvertent slights by others. When these upsets awaken and amplify past sorrows the pain is real.
The ongoing need for secure and satisfying connections within oneself and with others is a universal condition. Achieving and experiencing these important connections confound many of us. A major culprit in keeping deep connections out of reach is the belief that we ‘should’ keep difficult feelings concealed. Sadly this is a behavior valued by many. Unacknowledged and unexpressed feelings actually cause personal problems and relationship difficulties. Perhaps you noticed in the group’s interactions how each group member spoke openly about their feelings, how they valued joining with each other, and how their exchanges reflected efforts to appreciate and connect in their group therapy work. The commitment to grow together is embraced by the group members as they engage collaboratively to understand and connect with one another within the safe and secure container of the group experience.
If you have someone in your life who provides you the space to share your feelings openly, who creates time to connect with you and who will witness you without judgment as your life unfolds, consider yourself blessed. If you don’t have such a person in your life, you are at risk for letting your difficult feelings go underground again until this time next year. Discover how sharing with others in the here and now of a group is the real gift to seek.
PS: Group psychotherapists also provide individual therapy to help you understand you needs and goals before you join with others in a psychotherapy group. Find a Certified Group Psychotherapist in your local area: http://member.agpa.org/scriptcontent/Directory/CGPDir/cgpdirectory.aspx