Dealing with Holiday Guilt: How to Let Go of It and Find More Joy

5 min read
The worst holiday trip you can take is a guilt trip. Why are we so often overcome with guilty feelings during the holidays and feeling less than enough for everyone on our list? Whether the guilt you are feeling is coming from you or from outside influences, learning to let go can be one of the most important life skills you can cultivate. During the holidays or any other time in life, it is important to develop a better understanding of how acceptance and the act of letting go of guilt can inspire more love and joy.

Why do we feel so much guilt during the holidays?

The holidays tend to be a common time we deal with a ton of added pressure. Life doesn’t magically slow down so we can get all the extra tasks of the season done. There’s no other time of the year when we are more likely to feel guilty and put unrealistic expectations on ourselves and others. Perfectionism, trying to please everyone, and outside pressure from society or culture are just a few common characteristics surrounding the holidays. Stress, guilt, obligation, and financial pressure can be as much a part of the winter holidays as the joy of being together.

Guilt is a normal human emotion and can be a positive one.

Guilt helps you cope with things that go wrong and allows you to think about ways to resolve it. It can help you in deciding whether something you did was a bad decision and how you can change, fix or do it differently next time. However, there can be a downside of guilt. Too much guilt can be harmful to your mental well-being and cause an unnecessary burden of anxiety.

Excess feelings of guilt lead to shame. Shame can be crippling and lead to poor self-esteem. For instance, you might feel guilty about eating too much dessert at a holiday party the night before. A healthy response would be to get a little extra cardio in the next morning and resolve to eat less sweets for the next few days. An unhealthy response would be feeling shameful and berating yourself for overindulging. The same can go for guilt about saying no to family or social events during the holidays. Lying or overcommitting because you feel too guilty to let anyone down is not healthy for you or others involved.

How can you better deal with these emotions and feelings of guilt?

First and foremost, remind yourself that there are two types of guilt: authentic guilt and false guilt. Authentic guilt is knowing and understanding something is wrong and learning or growing from it. An example would be hurting someone else and feeling like you should make amends. On the other hand, false guilt is felt typically from not living up to someone else’s expectations. It is experiencing guilt over things that are not absolutely true or not in your control.

Here are some key signs that the guilt you are feeling is false guilt and how to deal with it more directly:

False Guilt #1: I ‘should’ be doing this!
If you catch yourself saying ‘I should’ it is probably false guilt. This is typically expectations from other people, culture, or society. Be careful if you catch yourself too often saying ‘I should have done this’ or ‘I really should say yes to this.’

The solution: Put your ‘should’ in perspective. Reflect on where your feelings of shame or guilt are coming from and reframe what the actual reality of the situation is.
  • The reality is that you should get sufficient sleep for your mental well-being rather than making three dozen cookies for the neighborhood party.
  • The reality is that you should be saving money for your financial well-being rather than overspending on gifts for family members.
False Guilt #2: You feel like you are doing something wrong rather than actually doing something wrong.
Most guilty feelings surrounding the holidays are not coming from vicious acts of wrongdoing. You are an adult, and you know right from wrong at this point in life. Stop holding on to these feelings when you are not in control of the outcome.

The solution: Stop and ask yourself this simple question. Stop feeling guilty and ask yourself, ‘Is this absolutely true?’ Take a step back and say no to your inner critic. What would an unbiased observer say about the situation?
  • ‘I’m a terrible parent because I did not stick to our family tradition of hanging outdoor lights, etc.’ Is this actually true? Would your best friend tell you this same thing because you took something OFF your list this year?
False guilt #3: You are being manipulated or blamed.
Your parents or in-laws have made you feel bad because you can’t commit to spending enough time with them and you feel like a terrible person. Sometimes verbal guilt is another feeling like love or loss. Parents often portray guilt out of just loving and wanting more time with you.

The solution: Be direct and try to have open and honest conversations instead. Accept that this is someone else’s emotions and not yours to bear. It’s okay to feel a little bad, but you must let go and not blame yourself. Be direct in your conversation.
  • Say something to your loved one like, ‘I’m sorry I’ve let you down and I hear that you are upset that we can’t spend more time with you. Let’s plan to spend more time together after the holidays.’
  • Accept your feelings, forgive any guilt that the person may be making you feel and let go. If you are honest with yourself and with them, you allow yourself the permission to move on and feel lighter.
Holding on to feelings of guilt will certainly ruin what should be an enjoyable holiday. Keep self-care and healthy habits your top focus. Many times, guilt and shame can come from fostering unhealthy habits and not managing stress. Being mindful through the holidays will help to keep a healthy perspective on what you actually need and what is authentically true. Let go and focus on being in the moment with less pressure and more joy.


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