Why don't I feel festive? Psychologist explains why it's 'totally okay' to be short of Christmas cheer
December has been a long month full of highs and lows, and now Christmas is (very nearly) finally here.
While that might bring joy to many, with people across the nation looking forward to seeing loved ones and tucking into a roast dinner and all the trimmings as was the norm pre-pandemic, for others it still might not feel quite so harmonious, perhaps due to personal or financial reasons.
And put more simply, you just might not be feeling it – but "that’s totally okay," says Dr Marianne Trent, clinical psychologist and author of The Grief Collective, who explains why we could be hit by the festive blues and how to find self-acceptance in that.
Read more: Should you charge your guests for Christmas dinner? How to handle the festive dilemma
Why don't I feel festive?
There are a variety of reasons why you might not be feeling as festive as you'd like. "It could be that you’ve experienced grief, sadness or trauma during these last 12 months and so things just aren’t coming as easy as they have done before," says Trent.
"It might even be that the people you’re spending time with stress you out or make you feel that you’re not enough. Whatever you’re going through it’s important not to invalidate yourself and in doing so, stay kind to yourself."
And with the past couple of years of COVID-19 and the current rise in living costs, it can be hard to feel entirely merry. "Even if we didn’t lose a loved one during the pandemic it is likely that all of us lost or grieved for something during that period. It could be that it meant you didn’t get to do something with someone for the last time or something significant like celebrate a big birthday or get married," Trent reflects.
"This time has been swiftly followed by a cost of living crisis meaning that even our home comforts may feel less gratifying than usual with a chillier home and less money to spend on the things important to us. All of these factors can take their toll and mean it might feel hard to find your Christmas sparkle."
Plus, no matter what's going on in the world, technically speaking it's not always possible to feel the way society tells us we should. "Christmas is just a social construction at the end of the day and our bodies and minds don’t always get the memo that we are ‘supposed’ to be cheery. Life doesn’t work like that and it’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling and it’s not always necessary to put a positive slant on that."
Read more: How to beat a festive hangover
Can growing responsibilities affect my festivity?
It's no secret that Christmas doesn't always hold the same magic for adults as it does for a five-year-old, but aside from the obvious, there's more reason for this than meets the eye.
"There will come a time for all of us who have had the privilege (or distress in some cases) of being raised by both of our parents where we look at them and realise that they are ageing. With this realisation often comes sadness and a realisation that the balance is shifting from them caring for us to us caring for them," Trent explains.
"Similarly, if we have children of our own it can feel like you’re now the proper grownup when you might prefer to still be hedonistically at the centre of things being organised around you rather than the creator of the festive fun!"
So, while those with little ones, a parent figure, or grandparents to think about are lucky in many ways, it can also be a reminder of growing responsibilities, which can feel particularly strained in the current climate. Trent also acknowledges that if you have lost someone you previously enjoyed Christmas times with, this might also understandably reduce your festive glow.
How can pressure to be merry affect my mental health?
Watch: How can I improve my mental health?
The Christmas period is typically full of fun events, more social gatherings and messages of happiness and love. While this can be great, it's also what others find challenging.
"Festive holidays don’t always boost our mental health in the ways we might imagine. For example, if people struggle with perfectionism, social anxiety or are working through how to feel okay around bigger groups of people post social distancing guidelines it can be problematic," Trent points out.
"The pressure to have an ‘insta-perfect’ Christmas day can also feel like a heavy lead to carry for some too. It’s also worth saying that for anyone with eating issues or body dysmorphia that Christmas can be a particularly triggering time."
While it might seem that everyone else is having a better time than you, remember everyone is going through something, big or small.
What should I do if I don't feel festive?
Firstly, take a sigh of relief, there's nothing wrong with feeling a bit like Scrooge.
"If you don’t feel festive that’s totally okay. Half the world don’t celebrate Christmas and you don’t have to switch yourself into a cheerful mulled wine supping, mince pie eating headspace just because the calendar has flipped to December," Trent emphasises.
"Self-acceptance is key. You’re lovely just as you are, and if you’re not feeling it then you don’t have to festoon yourself with tinsel just because it’s Christmas."
There are, however, things you can do that can help you find this acceptance.
"It might be helpful to do a bit of journaling about the way you’d want to feel by 9pm Christmas day evening," suggests Trent. "What mood state would you hope to be in? What might you hope to feel pleased, proud or happy about? You can then work backwards to help you to get to where you want to be."
And is it okay not to join in with celebrations or could this lead to more loneliness? "You get to choose what makes you happy and this might be diving in head first to a big Christmas gathering or choosing to sit it out and spend time by yourself. There is a difference between being alone and being lonely," adds Trent.
"It can be wonderfully restorative to spend time alone, but this doesn’t mean we would be feeling lonely. However, if you are wanting to isolate yourself and you do feel lonely then this is more problematic."
Read more: The most common mental health conditions – and where to get help
How can I look after my wellbeing this festive period?
It's all about paying attention to what feels right for you.
"It’s important to think about what our safe and comfortable limits are for eating, drinking and being merry. Catching up on some sleep and thinking about setting some aspirations for where you might want to be and how you might want to be feeling by this time next year can be wonderfully therapeutic," Trent recommends.
She also points out that it could be helpful to start asking others for help rather than thinking you have to do everything yourself in the lead up to and on the big day.
"If you feel like you’re struggling there is never any shame in reaching out for support or talking to someone you trust who is able to listen non-judgmentally," says Trent.
This could be a friend, mental health professional or mental health helpline, if you're concerned about the intensity or content of your thoughts.
You can call Mind's infoline on 0300 123 3393 or email email@example.com, open 10am to 6pm, Monday to Friday (except for bank holidays). For support on these days, contact Samaritans on 116 123 any time, day or night. For urgent care call 999 or visit your nearest A&E.