At this time of year, when we’re bombarded with idealized images of happy, intact families gathering together for the holidays, we can easily feel a sense of shame when our own lives don’t conform to those images. Rather than filling us with joy, the holiday season can feel like a humiliating experience. No one deliberately shames us. No one intends us to feel bad about ourselves. But when we’re alienated from our families or we find ourselves alone, we often feel ashamed all the same. This type of shame lies beneath the depression that afflicts many of us at this time of year.
In my new book, I refer to this as the shame of "Disappointed Expectation." Brené Brown has described the perfectionistic ideals and expectations imposed upon women by society, and how the inevitable failure to reach those ideals instills a sense of shame; with all those happily-ever-after Christmas movies, Hallmark sentimentality, and carols about joy and love and family, our culture likewise imposes a set of expectations for how your own holiday season ought to “look.” Society projects countless images of the happy Christmas experience and implicitly tells us our own lives should conform to them.
You’re supposed to be filled with love as you celebrate your family’s traditions. There’s a father and mother in that picture, still married after all these years, and siblings who want to be near you. You ought to have a spouse or significant other, too; past a certain age, you’re supposed to have children who bring you a new sense of joy. No one tells you that you ought to feel ashamed if your own holiday experience looks nothing like that idealized picture, but chances are, you will. Falling short of expectation usually stirs up shame, even when no one intends us to feel that way.
Holiday shame can be especially acute for women who have decided to go no-contact with their narcissistic or abusive mothers. In Daughter Detox, Peg Streep has described the shame so many women feel about having a mother who did not love them, as if they must be inherently unlovable and therefore to blame for their mother’s inability to love them. Streep describes how some of these women ultimately realize they must sever ties with their mothers to protect themselves from further abuse. Because our culture idealizes motherhood and insists that all mothers love their children “deep down,” going no-contact can stir up additional shame when a woman’s life looks nothing like that image of the “normal” mother-daughter relationship.
During the holiday season, this sense of shame can easily be intensified by well-meaning colleagues or acquaintances who ask where you’re spending your holidays. For a woman who has gone no-contact, that question alone can stir up profound shame. Even when she’s come to understand and accept that she’s not to blame for her mother’s inability to love, she may easily feel shame when a stranger unwittingly asks, “Are you going home for Christmas?” For many women, there is no home to go back to; perhaps there never was one in any meaningful sense. The expectation embodied in that question – that everyone should go home for the holidays if possible – can easily fill us with shame.
Disconnection and a feeling that one does not belong will always stir up shame. The holiday season intensifies that shame and often leads to profound depression at this time of year. Rather than go into hiding, as many of us tend to do, we instead should reach out and forge connections. There are many ways to belong. Men and women in the gay community, often estranged from their families of origin, have created new “families” of friends and partners with whom they celebrate. Single people everywhere, far away from their families by necessity or choice, do the same thing. But even if we have no close friends nearby to share in our holiday experience, we can volunteer to help others in need, people who may be even more profoundly isolated at this time of year than we are.
Food kitchens, homeless shelters, hospitals, senior centers, the Salvation Army … especially during the holidays, there are many opportunities to volunteer and connect with other people. Getting outside yourself and giving to the needy will not only lessen your sense of holiday shame but might bring the added bonus of building your self-esteem. As I show in my new book, we feel better about ourselves when we behave in ways that earn us our own self-respect.
Shame drives us into isolation. The antidote is to reach out and discover where we belong, how we can connect, and to take action that will build self-esteem to offset the vague sense of humiliation so many of us feel at this time of year.