Reaffirming What's Important.
By Bethany Marshall, Psy.D., L.M.F.T.
Published in In Magazine, Los Angeles Dec 12, 2005

"I bet this is a busy season for you," the man behind the cash register winks knowingly. It takes a moment for me that he's noticed the credentials on my check and has assumed that as a psychotherapist, I would feel the holidays are a likely time for depression.

"Actually, many people feel better during this time of year. After all, it's a time for reaffirming what's important. Friendship, meaning being rooted in the past and turning toward the future," I respond. As I speak, I realize that my response seems hasty and perhaps even a little defensive. Yet I also know that what I'm articulating I feel strongly about. There is something powerful and hopeful about this time of year. The holidays - if properly understood and thoughtfully celebrated - can actually buffer against depression, reaffirm what's important, and re-install a sense of meaning into life.

But how can the holidays help instead of hurt, and why has Christmas developed a reputation for imparting depression instead of hope?

Tradition and expectation are important keys to the season. According to each person's faith, belief system, or family history, there is a set of traditions that is generally agreed upon. These traditions have been celebrated over time, and represent what has become meaningful for a group of people. Tradition is important, because it helps us feel rooted in the past. In our affluent, technology-driven culture, it's easy to feel cut off from history and others; the future tends to be over-valued, and the lessons of the past forgotten. Tradition affords us the opportunity to learn more about the lives of those who have come before and about values that have stood the test of time.

It is important, however, to only adopt traditions that are personally meaningful. For instance, if Aunt Betsy feels that everybody would spend five days together in a cabin with no running water in order to celebrate Christmas, and if your idea of Christmas is taking a much needed break, think twice. Christmas will become a depressing experience if you feel coerced into embracing rituals that are empty, meaningless, or even potentially hurtful. Spend time with family and loved ones, but disregard family expectations that are unrealistic and pointless. Avoid spending money that you do not have, and instead, focus on celebrating traditions of your own, and sharing these with friends and loved ones.

The holidays are also powerful because the attach us to something larger than our own existence. Feeling connected to a transcendent force is vital. At the beginning of life, we are connected to out mothers. As children, we understand that we are part of a larger family. As adults, we develop a sense of belonging when we join religious groups, make business affiliations, develop ideologies, make friends, etc. Unfortunately, these days many of us are disenfranchised from family and support. This disenfranchisement can lead to depression and lack of meaning during the holidays unless an accepting social group or surrogate family is actively sought out.

This holiday, take steps to become part of a larger family or group:
• If you are close to your family, find ways to commemorate their importance to you.
• If you do not have a loving, supportive family, create one of your own.
• Only celebrate with people who are close, loving and like-minded.
• Throughout the season, stay mindful of people and influences that have shaped your lie in a positive direction.

Not only do the holidays commemorate history, and a "larger force at work," they also symbolize willingness to express appreciation and love toward others. Gift giving is one of the central symbols of gratitude and love. Although many decry the commercialism of Christmas, there is nothing shallow or commercial about expressing "I love you" or "Thank you for all you've done" through and appropriate sentiment or gift.

Finally, the holidays help reorient us toward the future. Not only is it vital to feel rooted in larger, collective history, it is important to feel that life extends positively and purposely into the future. Over the holidays, take time to reflect upon the future. What does your hold? So you wish to love or be loved, take charge of your life in a particular way, or develop a talent or skill? At the cornerstone of the human psyche is the desire to generate something useful with one's life, and this is the time of year to develop overarching ideas and plans that can gradually be implemented.

Depression only sets in when one develops and idealized view of the holidays that cannot possibly be realized. For example, dreaming of a warm, loving family when yours is distant will create disillusionment. Wishing for countless party invitations when you have only a few good friends will lead to feelings of rejection, and fantasizing about buying extravagant gifts when on a limited budget will make purchases feel insignificant and trivial. A friend once shared the following: "I don't feel like I'm celebrating the holidays unless I'm drinking champagne, wearing a tuxedo, and dancing to a full orchestra like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire." Needless to say, this friend was frequently disappointed when his hopes were not realized.

The holidays are a time for taking charge of your own life, rather than fulfilling the dreams of others. This season, set plans that are realistic and obtainable. Reaffirm traditions and values that make personal sense, embrace those who are closest to you, and let the spirit of friendship infuse you with the continual rebirth of friendship, history, meaning and hope that is the ongoing fabric of celebration and faith.

Dr Bethany Marshall, Psy.D., L.M. F.T., has offices in Beverly Hills and Pasadena, CA. She can be reached at