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Handling Holiday Guilt - A Guide

With Thanksgiving behind us, and countless holidays ahead of us between now and the end of January, I'd like to take this opportunity to write about the unwanted leftovers you may have carted home this week.  I'm not talking about Grandma LaVerne's fruitcake, I'm talking about the G word - because nothing says family holiday like a hot helping of fresh guilt!  Do you struggle with feelings of guilt around the holidays (or any other time of year)?  Read on to learn about why we feel it, and how to keep it from hitching a ride home with you!

  • Guilt is a normal, human emotion:  I can't completely rid you of guilt, and if you stop for a moment to think about it, you wouldn't want that either.  It is absolutely necessary that we experience guilt from time to time.  It keeps us from pushing people down flights of stairs, and eating all of the dinner rolls before anyone else gets a chance. Guilt is there to teach us how to behave, and once we've learned how we might handle that situation in the future, guilt has served its function, and should be able to leave us in peace.
  • But I don't push people down flights of stairs, and I still feel super guilty!  There are definitely forms of guilt that don't serve us.  To help you figure out if that's what's plaguing you, first ask yourself, "did I actually do something wrong?"  If the answer is yes, then ask, "Have I learned the lesson and made an attempt to repair any damage done?"  If the answer is yes, and your guilt persists, it's no longer helping you or others.  If the answer to the first question above is no, then you might be experiencing the guilt that results from difficulty managing others' or our own expectations of ourselves.
    • Here endeth the lesson:  When I was about five years old, and my brother was fourteen, I was engaged in a one sided war for who could generate the most interesting dinner conversation.  He always seemed to have such interesting stories about high school and friends; given that my days consisted of paste and naptime, my kindergarten brain told me I needed to come up with some new material.  One day over dinner, I decided to tell the family that my teacher had stapled her finger (spoiler alert, she hadn't).  For a few, brief, shining moments, I held court at the family table, fielding questions, and feeling a smug sense of satisfaction.  It all crumbled when my mom inquired as to my teachers' well being when she dropped me off the next day.  I felt bad.  I felt guilt.  I stopped lying to my family - at least until high school, and I apologized to them and my teacher.  Once the lesson was learned, there was no reason to continue to beat myself up over it.  Access your inner five year old, who lives in the moment and doesn't dwell on the past.  Have you learned your lesson?  Great, then you are free to let go of the guilt!
    • Everybody wants something and I just can't say no:  "Could you pick my kids up from school with yours today and just keep them with you until I can come and get them later?"  "We really need you to host the holidays this year, no one else can do it!"  "I'm going to be out of town for the next two weeks, no one else can take care of my chinchillas, all you have to do is feed them and give them a dust bath every few days...they only bite a little."  Holiday season or not, we're often inundated with requests that we have varying capacities to meet.  If you have difficulty saying no, it may stem from a belief that tells you that you are not permitted to do so.  Check out this assertiveness bill of rights.  Not only are you allowed to say no, sometimes it's really necessary for your mental health.  
  • Build your mindfulness muscle:  Guilt is an emotion that typically springs from excessive worry about a past transgression (real or imagined), or concern about letting yourself or others down in the future.  Staying focused on the present, rather than time traveling to past and future worries can go a long way toward alleviating unnecessary guilt.  You will find a wealth of information about how to start your own mindfulness practice here!  
  • Excessive guilt can be a sign that it's time for a professional evaluation:  Feeling guilty more often than not can be a symptom of depression - if these signs and symptoms of depression describe your mood, make an appointment with a professional who can evaluate your symptoms and make appropriate treatment recommendations.  If you need immediate help in a crisis call (800) 273-8255 or text Home to 741741.


Dr. Scrivani specializes in the Cognitive Behavioral treatment of anxiety and related disorders, and provides tele-mental health services to residents of New York, Florida, and internationally. Call (888) 535-5671 or email [email protected] to set up a free consultation.  Visit my website for more information

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