Is Your Heart Ready For The Holidays?

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…even here in Southwest Florida, where most of us celebrate Christmas in shorts and t-shirts.

I appreciate the effort people make around here to recreate the holiday experience they had when they lived up north — with colored lights and digital icicles and miles of garland and ribbon. It’s certainly festive, but if they are trying to relive their Norman Rockwell childhoods, they’re going to feel robbed. I’ve seen people spray paint, styrofoam, even cotton balls all over their trees, in a vain effort to simulate snow.

I’m sorry. You’re still not going to be able to put on your coat and stocking cap and make snow angels or start a snowball fight. This is Southwest Florida. We watch snow on TV by the swimming pool.

So, why do we do things like this?

Reconnecting To The Past

Why do we tune to radio stations that broadcast Christmas ditties by Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, and the Carpenters? We don’t listen to them the rest of the year, so why now? Why every December? Why do we buy antique ornaments and watch Christmas movies from the 1950s?

It’s because we are clinging to the things that make us feel safe. Nostalgia for simpler times feels good, even if our “simpler times” were difficult or painful. Childhood memories, no matter how distorted they may be from reality, make us feel comfortable. They remind us of a time in our lives when we didn’t have a care; when we didn’t have bills to pay and people counting on us. When we felt like we were part of a community that cared about us.

I remember a time in college when I went from feeling like I was finally free on my own to feeling like I would give anything to go home and live with my parents again. “Home” was safe and comfortable. Christmas felt more special to me that year than it had been before. It was familiar. Even years later, seeing my mom’s Christmas decorations felt like a kind of emotional reunion.

Some part of our soul longs to go back to good times. For most of us, the holidays are particularly rich with memories of the fun we had. It’s easy to forget about the hard times we went through because our memories gravitate to the joyful memories. The farther you get from an object, the more your vision of it gets blurry. It’s true of our memories as well. “Time heals all wounds,” the expression goes, but it’s not true. It’s just that our memory of the details softens over time. Only forgiveness heals wounds. There will always be a scar, but it’s up to us what we do about it.

Is your heart ready to face holiday season 2017? Or are you still hoping to experience the holiday season from 1975?

Enjoying Now

Ultimately, I’d like to see more people living their best lives now. Rather than going through life hanging onto “The Good Old Days,” I’d like to see you enjoy THIS day for what it is. If you feel like your best years are behind you, what keeps you going now? Let’s find a joy in 2017 that is so fulfilling that we don’t have to long for days gone by.

One of the reasons we see such an overwhelming epidemic of loneliness in our society is this longing to go back to simpler times. Rather than investing themselves in the joy of the present, they are detached from the present and reaching back for the joy and fun they remember from the past. The problem is, you can’t go back and you can’t go forward in time. The only way to find real joy now is to really enjoy now.

And a major part of finding joy in the present is building meaningful connections with other people now.

Solitude Is OK, But Loneliness Will Damage Your Health

Loneliness is real, it’s powerful, and it is dangerous. Several recent reports have shown that loneliness is as damaging to your health as obesity. Worse, it seems to manifest itself most strongly during the holiday season. 

As we’ve been discussing for the last few weeks, loneliness and solitude are not the same things. Solitude is healthy at times. It can be very freeing to spend some time alone. German philosopher Paul Tillich said, “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.” 

(Actually, he said, “Unsere Sprache hat die beiden Seiten des Seins weise weise gespürt. Es hat das Wort Einsamkeit geschaffen, um den Schmerz des Alleinseins auszudrücken. Und es hat das Wort Einsamkeit geschaffen, um den Ruhm des Alleinseins auszudrücken,” because he was German. But that isn’t helpful to most of my audience.)

Loneliness Is A Warning Light

Loneliness is similar to the sensation of pain or guilt. They are all like a “Check Engine” light on your dashboard that alerts you to a problem with your car’s engine:

  • Physical pain is a series of electrochemical signals that move through your nervous system at the speed of light to tell your brain that something is wrong with your body.
  • Guilt is an emotion generated in your conscience that tells your mind that something in your behavior is violating your values.
  • Loneliness is an indicator that you have isolated the social side of your soul. You were designed for social connection and isolation is a violation of your soul.

While it is often beneficial to take some time away from the pressures of life and relationships to spend some quality time in solitude with yourself, loneliness is never healthy. The difference between them is your attitude–how you feel about spending time with yourself. Loneliness is a sense of emptiness or lack, and you can suffer loneliness whether you are physically alone or surrounded by people. In fact, the worst kind of loneliness is when you are lonely in the presence of someone with whom you should be enjoying fellowship. I remember the loneliness I felt when my marriage was coming apart. No matter how much time we spent in each others’ presence, when the communicating stopped, we were lonely together.

You don’t have to be lonely, even when you’re alone. If you don’t like yourself your time alone will be bitter, but if you maintain a healthy self-image, time alone can be very rewarding. I like how novelist May Sarton said it: “Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.”

Steps To Holiday Heart Health

So, the first step to keeping a healthy heart during the holidays–whether you are surrounded by family and friends or alone–is to be at peace with yourself; to accept yourself as you are and find the joy in being in your own skin.

Second, it’s time to connect with someone.

I see this all the time in my patients and colleagues who are widowed or divorced. I encourage them to actively seek out a new friend – not online, but in person – or join a group in the area with a similar interest. There has also been a lot of research into the health benefits (mental, emotional, and physical) of keeping a pet. Volunteer to read books to children at the local library. Offer to tutor high school students. Join the Boys and Girls Clubs as a mentor.

There are many ways to connect with other humans, and your effort to combat your loneliness may actually be the answer to someone else’s loneliness, and just imagine how that would feel. Like Mother Teresa said, “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” Your reaching out to others could be the best gift you could do for them.

Join Us Tomorrow Night

Tomorrow night, we are hosting a fascinating Fundamental Foods and Friends Dinner at my office, and I couldn’t be more excited about it. We’re pleased to introduce you to Kathy Feinstein, MS, who will show you the link between isolation and disease. Ms. Feinstein is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Sport Performance Consultant (CMPC). Since 1998 her unique practice has empowered adolescents, adults, couples, families and teams to achieve greater satisfaction in sport, health and life. Kathy’s practice focuses on the 3 key areas: counseling, sport performance psychology and education through seminars and workshops. Kathy works with youth, high school, collegiate, adult amateur and professional athletes in such sports as golf, tennis, hockey, volleyball, basketball, figure skating, cheerleading, track and field, swimming and cycling. In addition to sport and exercise psychology consulting, she also offers team and coach consulting. Kathy has a special interest in mood and anxiety disorders, grief and loss, relationship issues, parenting, medical/health issues and pediatric obesity. She is certified by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.  Kathy is also an accomplished speaker and offers specialized and interactive workshops and seminars regularly.

Don’t miss this fascinating dinner. Even if you don’t deal with isolation, you might know someone who does, and you might just learn a key for connecting with them. Space is limited and filling up fast, so RSVP right now to save your seat. Bring a dish to share or $10 cash, and we will look forward to seeing you.

Meanwhile, take a few seconds to share this article on your favorite social media channel. You might be shocked at how many people you know are struggling with loneliness through the holidays, and you wouldn’t even know it.

Oh, and if you saw the title of this article “Is Your Heart Ready For The Holidays,” and thought that I would be talking about keeping your cardiovascular system strong while you are gorging yourself on holiday food, you’ll have to wait until after tomorrow night’s dinner. Right now, I really want to get your thinking about preventing loneliness.

“At the end of your feelings is NOTHING. At the end of your principles is a PROMISE.”  — Eric Thomas

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