Jingle Bell Shadow: A Jungian View of Holiday Depression and Anxiety
Almost all therapists experience it: the phone gets more and more hyperactive the closer the calendar gets to December 25.
As the holidays get nearer, more and more people call.
While for many people, the holidays may bring great joy, for many others, they bring a sense of depression, an empty feeling, or even positive anger.
This season of the winter solstice is filled with incredible images of light and optimism. Paradoxically, it also sheds light on a lot of the darker places in our lives. Often these are places that we would rather not look at or bring to consciousness. But growth is to be found in exploring the very places that we would rather not go.
Contrary to the glowing images of togetherness, family and fellowship with which the media bombard us at this time, many people experience intense loneliness during “the holidays”. These days can be times of real difficulty for many people whose lives don’t fit the conventional patterns adopted by the majority of people. What is more, people can often get the message that they are “supposed” to be together with others at this time of year, and that there must be something wrong with them if they find themselves alone. But that is not the case. Being alone, and even being lonely, is a part of human experience. It does not imply pathology or blameworthiness, although it can be more than difficult enough to experience it.
On the other hand, just because someone is in a family structure or way of life that looks like the images of “family togetherness” portrayed by the media does not mean that there is any less holiday loneliness or depression in their lives. Many people have to contend with deep experiences of loneliness right in the midst of their marriages or family relationships. It can be excruciating lonely to be locked in a relationship with someone who does not see us, who is completely oblivious to our needs, or whom we discover to have values that are 180 degrees away from our own. Also, for those who have to deal with the reality of betrayal in intimate relationships by those in whom they have previously put their trust, Yuletide with its memories of trusting togetherness can be excruciating in its pain.
For many, it’s not so much that the present reality of the holidays clashes with the warm memories of the past. For many, the associations with Christmas include terrifying memories such as an alcoholic parent coming home drunk and starting fights, engaging in abuse, or knocking over the Christmas tree. For others, the pain of the holidays comes from the pain of a childhood sense of expectation that went nowhere. The child whose sole parent had to working killing hours in the hospitality industry over Christmas Day, and who met each Christmas eve with the expectation of a present or even just close family times that never came to pass often grows up to be an adult with a deep Christmas wound, often expressed in anger, resentment or just plain hatred of the season.
Many people are acutely aware of the deep religious feeling that used to characterize the Christian experience of the Christmas season. Even though they cannot enter into the expressions of faith of the past, or perhaps even of their own youth, they feel that there is something deeply wrong with the sentimentalization, commercialization and overall bad taste that they see in the way that we currently keep the season.
Perhaps there is value for us in reaching back into the human traditions that link us to the ancient rituals of the death and rebirth of the sun at the time of the winter solstice. For ancient human beings, this season entailed both the awareness of the decline and weakening of the sun, as well as its subsequent renewal.
There is deep psychological truth in this. If the sun in its light and warmth-giving aspect is to be seen as the truest symbol of the conscious mind, its decline into the darkness of the winter solstice represents the descent of consciousness into the awareness of failure, weakness and brokenness. This is the shadow journey that the human psyche, like the sun, must make to complete its journey. It is only in this awareness, and from these ashes, that the upward journey of the sun and of consciousness can begin again. Similarly, it is only in the awareness of the places of brokenness in our lives and often in the live of the child within us that we can begin to find our way forward again in new hope and in growing, life-giving new awareness.
It is possible to see in holiday depression and anxiety nothing more than a manifestation of the failure and decay of once-meaningful religious rituals. It is possible then to meet the season with a cynicism that protects us from our own disappointment and sense of loss. But it is also possible to take in the season with a different kind of more receptive attitude.
This second attitude doesn’t deny the aspects of the shadow that are highlighted by our overly sentimental, overly light celebration of the season. To recognize the places in our lives where our sun is in decline takes courage. To believe that new life and new value are to be found just in those very places, where the sense of pain, disillusionment and abandonment are greatest, takes even more. It takes the courage and hope of the miracle of the re-born sun.