Holiday Struggles and Illumination

Unpopular opinion: I really dislike this time of year. My favorite holiday is Halloween because it’s just strictly fun, no pressure. Thanksgiving starts to bring in drama, usually of the family variety, but it’s still enjoyable. But by the time the December holidays roll around, they come with relentless messaging around gift giving, family, indulgence and merrymaking, with subtle hints of obligation. These days, you can’t walk through any store without experiencing the big corporate holiday pressuring, and so I find the season to be a lot more stressful than joyous. I recognize that I’m not alone in struggling through the holiday season, but this year as I take stock of what is working in my life and what isn’t, I’ve come to some unsettling realizations about what the holiday season brings out in me. I recognize that while some of my gift-giving and my accumulation of material crap are often rooted in fear of lack, shame, and poor boundaries, awareness of these patterns will allow me to head into the new year with healthier habits.

I started pondering these questions a few days ago because it occurred to me that I was going overboard with my spending—both on gifts for others and on myself. I legitimately enjoy giving gifts to my loved ones. If I see something they will enjoy, I’ll get it for them. In some cases, I’ll take the time to make gifts, which is again something I enjoy. Usually not a big deal because the intentions are pure. But at some point, I found myself stressing over making gifts for people adjacent to the ones I wanted to make things for or agonizing over sending things because I had to. If I give a gift to this person, that one might feel offended. This person sent me something, I should give them something in return. It’s called exchanging gifts for a reason, right? But giving out of obligation doesn’t feel good. If anything, it becomes a weight. I finally came to the conclusion that this type of giving is really about trying to gain or maintain acceptance. It’s selfish and fear based. And neither party wins. The recipient will likely on some level feel that the gift wasn’t given out of love and the gift may end up being just more meaningless stuff to clutter up their lives. There’s nothing wrong with gift-giving if it’s done in love and a real desire to bring someone else joy, but if it’s just an obligation, the impulse needs to be curbed.

I tend to impulse buy and accumulate lots of stuff, and I had to examine what was driving that behavior. That was more complex, but I narrowed it down to two things: fear of lack, which goes back generations, and cultural messages about lack, wealth, class, and even caste. The generational piece comes from being raised by a single mom who lived during the Depression. In other words, there was a constant condition of not having enough in a person who spent their formative years not having enough. Now I find myself stocking up on things due to the constant worry that we will run out of the things we need. I bought wrapping paper the other day thinking we didn’t have any when actually we had way more than we needed in addition to numerous gift bags of various sizes that I always save and reuse. That type of survival mentality is reinforced by retailers who lead us to believe we’re getting a better deal buying larger quantities. Technically we do, but we also spend more than we need and have to store more than we need.

Then there is the constant messaging around status and class that seems to require proof of status by consuming the symbols of that status—big homes, cars, electronics and smart everything. There’s a constant race to keep up with the next person as a sign of value. This isn’t news. This attitude can work its way into gift-giving during the holidays—did I spend the same on each kid? Did I balance out the numbers of gifts? What was less obvious to me was how caste rules play a role in the accumulation of material possessions. People of color in this country are told in subtle and not so subtle ways from day one that they are less. Lacking. For myself, I think part of my accumulation of stuff is an attempt to feel just as good as my peers who exist in upper caste stations. I think it’s partially about fear of not having enough but just as much about fear of not being enough.  

Probably the biggest revelation I had was that these things I accumulate end up adding to the clutter in our home, and the clutter has become like a fortress. I’m very introverted and highly empathic. So that makes me very protective of my space and who comes into it. There have been people who have come into this place that should be my sanctuary. My safe space became the opposite. And so, I’ve allowed my home to become—cultivated it—into this cluttered, uninviting mess. That seemed easier than standing up for myself and enforcing my boundaries.

I’m not sure when I stopped being able to say no and set boundaries for myself. When I was young it wasn’t an issue at all. I remember the end of seventh grade, a friend came to my house, and we planned to go hang out. When we got to my house, I had a message from my mom that I had to get rid of all the stuff from the school year that I didn’t need and generally clean up before I could go anywhere. This friend got bored and started tearing pages out of workbooks I was throwing out. She was adding to what I had to clean up. When I told her to stop, she escalated, and I seem to remember at some point her throwing water. In hindsight, I get it—she was just playing and trying to have some fun. Obviously, she watched too many afterschool specials that glorified that nonsense. My patience quickly ran out, and I kicked her out of my house.  

I think the difference there was that we were peers and equals. There was no perceived hierarchy. But when it comes to families or elders that changes things. Caste training also plays a role when someone in a typically privileged position crosses lines. It becomes a little harder (for me anyway) to put a stop to unacceptable behaviors. That, however, is a different topic and a story for another day. The point is that the pattern of building walls of stuff instead of just creating healthier boundaries has come into question because it’s been out of control this holiday. Almost like insurance against anyone coming here.

Going into 2023, in addition to the motivation playlist and vision board I plan to create, I definitely have some work to do on these issues. I need to work on self-acceptance so I don’t feel the need to seek external acceptance. Likewise, I need to break the mental chains that tie worthiness to material objects. Last and most importantly, I need to stick to my boundaries so I can enjoy a comfortable and uncluttered home without fear that it will be overrun and that I will be trod on in the process.

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