The decorations are coming down. The ornaments have been put away. The trees are out on the sidewalk, and most of us will be ok with not seeing another candy cane for 11.5 more months. Most holiday obligations have been fulfilled, and now we just have to find places to put all the stuff we accumulated throughout the holiday season. It’s a little bittersweet to put away the twinkly lights and special decor, but can also be a relief to be done with the busy-ness of the season.
And now there’s that other thing that begins to happen around this time of year: The post-holiday letdown. The crash after the sugar rush, the jarring return to “normal life,” the explosive exhalation that comes after holding your breath for the better part of six weeks. The moment when you wake up and realize it’s all over for another year, and you have to go back to work today.
The big exhale
In The Return of the King, on the eve of one of the greatest battles for the fate of Middle Earth, Gandalf spends a quiet moment of reflection with young Hobbit Pippin. Pippin observes that the city seems very quiet on the eve of battle. “It’s the deep breath before the plunge,” Gandalf says gravely. We spend a lot of time on that deep breath before the busy, tense, exciting, and hectic holiday season. We prepare, psych ourselves up, strategize our boundaries and exit strategies, and practice our polite-but-firm no’s. But sometimes we forget something: The exhale after the plunge.
Have you released that breath yet? Perhaps you’ve found yourself feeling still keyed up, or finding it hard to relax and settle back into daily life. Maybe you fled with relief into a normal workweek, only to find yourself unexpectedly irritable, short-fused, or easily overwhelmed. Are you ready to cry over nothing, snapping at your partner, or suddenly revisiting griefs you thought you’d long since let go of?
Welcome to the letdown
While the lights are shining on pretty wrapping paper and sparkling pine trees, we can sometimes forget about or distract ourselves from the painful side of family gatherings. We can focus on how this year, your MIL’s passive aggressive comments didn’t bother you so much, or how you didn’t have to witness a screaming match between two relatives. Or you can put all your attention on firmly redirecting that aunt that insists on foisting her outdated and unsolicited parenting advice where it isn’t wanted.
It’s after the lights die down and the sparkly distractions fade that the letdown happens. When there’s nothing else to distract us from the hard part: the realization that despite all the hard work you’ve done to heal, recover, and build a better life for yourself, you can still be hurt by people you love.
Whether the pain is caused by direct nastiness, distance and detachment, or simply the lack of caring that you’ve come to be so familiar with, the pain can be shocking. The reminders that some things don’t change that much, no matter how much you have changed, can burn. And the grief that follows can be devastating in its intensity.
The letdown can be beautiful
Before one of their songs skyrocketed to popularity through its appearance in A Walk to Remember, surfer band Swtichfoot was relatively unknown. One of my favorite songs from an earlyish album is entitled The Beautiful Letdown. Although the song has a religious bent, I think there is relevance to those who struggle with their outsider status within their own families.
It was a beautiful letdown
When we crashed and burned
When I found myself alone
Unknown and hurt
It was a beautiful letdown
The day I knew
All the riches this world had to offer me
Would never do
In a world full of bitter pain and bitter doubt
I was trying so hard to fit in until I found out
I don’t belong here
What makes the letdown hard is that we are forced to again confront the pain of being part of a family that does not see, unconditionally love, or respect us. Being ignored, devalued, and pressured to fall in line hurts. And the holidays tend to bring out the narc in most narcissists.
What makes the letdown beautiful is that it is a reminder of something very important: you don’t belong here because you have chosen to break that chain. You stand out because you don’t fall in line anymore. You have chosen a different path. The letdown is painful, but there can be beauty in it as well.
Honor your grief
Even seeing the beauty in being an outsider doesn’t fully negate the pain of being around abusive or disinterested family members, and I don’t want to imply that it should. If you find yourself breaking down all over again about those childhood memories, or feeling the pang of jealousy as your dad fawns over your sister’s boyfriend and ignores your family, you have a right to your feelings. Honor and send compassion to your grieving parts. This may be the first time there’s been enough room in your awareness for them to voice the pain they still carry. That pain is real and valid, and they deserve your care.
Those parts may still hold even the tiniest bit of hope that maybe this year would be different. No matter how much your pragmatic parts anticipate the same old-same old, those hopeful parts may have still been wishfully thinking of a different outcome. Disappointed hopes can be heard through the letdown.
You may not be a New Year’s Resolutioner (I’m not), but this could be a lovely opportunity. An opportunity to practice self-kindness and care for your wounded parts in the aftermath of the letdown.
What do your sad parts need to hear from you right now? Give them a hug and tell them.
What relationships do you find supportive and fulfilling? Build on those.
Where do you feel seen, loved, and appreciated? Spend more time there.
Be kind to yourself. Replenish your depleted reserves. Feel the letdown, and then pick yourself up and remember that you are beautiful and loved.