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Holiday Guilt

Updated: Dec 7, 2022




‘Tis the season to feel… guilty? Although the holidays are often associated with joy, many of us feel complex feelings around the holiday season including fear, sadness, anger, and guilt. These feeling are natural (as they compose our 5 core emotions and we feel them A LOT) but also can be provoked by difficult emotional triggers, memories, losses, conflicts, etc. In this blog, I want to focus on a few forms of holiday guilt one may experience and ways to cope with those scenarios!

Guilt is a tricky, but not always bad, emotion. However, many of us feel guilt unnecessarily, or in an unjustified manner, and that is what makes it a complex emotion to consider. Guilt is an emotion that is designed to “keep us in the tribe”- meaning that feeling guilt when we “step over the line” or wrong someone can be a GOOD thing. It triggers us to attempt to “get back on track” and stay a member of our social groups through amend making, apologies, and planned action of change. Unjustified guilt is guilt that we experience for reasons not related to wrongdoing on our part. A great example of unjustified guilt may look like:

Tom and Sarah have decided to “split” Thanksgiving and Christmas with their families, alternating each year which holiday they would be spend with which family. The couple shared this with their families well in advance and all parties agreed this was fair. The couple spent Thanksgiving with Sarah’s family, and planned Christmas with Tom’s family. Sarah’s mom claimed to “forget” that Sarah would not be home for Christmas that year and called her in tears claiming that her absence would “ruin” Christmas. Sarah feels a guilt trigger but remembers that all parties agreed to this plan well in advance, that it would not be fair to her relationship to allow her family to dominate holiday time, and she is not responsible for her mother’s feelings. Sarah decides this guilt is not justified and does not act on it.

When you assess your holiday guilt, it would be a good starting point to consider whether that guilt is justified or unjustified. This decision may guide you to different behavioral paths moving forward! Some areas where holiday guilt may pop up include:


1) TIME- Time is scarce and precious during the holidays. It is not possible to do everything and be everywhere, especially if you have loved ones who live in different locations.


If you feel justified guilt concerning time during the holiday season:

· Make sure to plan out your event calendar in advance and prioritize seeing your loved ones in a FAIR manner

· If you cannot make an event, attempt to make other plans outside of the holiday season with those people who you will miss seeing

· Send a note or gift if you cannot make an event to have a presence

· Make a short phone call or text to let someone know you care and are thinking of them during the holidays


If you feel unjustified guilt concerning time during the holiday season:

· Remind yourself that you cannot do everything and be everywhere, and that is NORMAL and human

· Remind yourself of your attempts to be fair and flexible with others (even if they don’t work out)

· Remind yourself that you deserve to ENJOY your holiday as well, and you are not responsible for other’s feelings


2) MONEY- Money can provoke a great deal of guilt around the holiday season. It is a season of extravagance and gift giving, and it can be awkward to not be in the financial position to spend a lot of money on others during this time of year. This year has also been particularly financially distressing for most of the population. Because of this, I am only going to focus on tips to deal with unjustified guilt surrounding money.


If you feel unjustified guilt concerning not being able to spend a great deal of money around the holiday season:

· Set a boundary with your loved ones around money spent on gift giving this year! This could be sharing that you would like to not swap gifts at all or putting a dollar limit on how much you would like to spend

· Remind yourself that your financial security is an IMPORTANT and reasonable concern! You deserve to be able to afford all your necessary expenditures and not feel overly stressed in doing so. You deserve to maintain savings, too!

· “Giving” during the holiday season doesn’t just have to be monetary in nature! You can give your time, assistance/favors, affection, etc.


3) NOT SPEAKING WITH AN ESTRANGED FAMLY MEMBER OR FRIEND- “Cutting off” family or friends who have been extremely hurtful or damaging is very hard and disappointing. The holidays can be a difficult time when we have cut off loved ones, as it is usually a time when people are gathering with their loved ones and in increased communication with one another as well. If communication is not safe, however, it may still not be worth pursuing.


If you feel justified guilt around not speaking with a loved one during the holiday season:

· If you have historically had a healthy relationship with someone and have had a recent “spat” that is NOT indicative of how the relationship usually functions, you may consider saying something over the holidays BUT also suggesting that you all need to process what has occurred in the relationship at some point in the future

· If you have cut someone off versus sharing your feelings and setting boundaries with them (and they feel SAFE enough for you to do this with), you may consider whether it is possible to do so. Avoiding people versus being vulnerable and assertive with them may lead to later regrets.


If you feel unjustified guilt around not speaking with a loved one during the holiday season:

· Remind yourself that is OKAY and important to protect yourself from people who have been harmful to you with no remorse, change in behavior, etc.

· Comfort yourself that it is hard to not speak with loved ones around the holidays, and that it is normal to still care for people who you have cut off. Your care does not mean that you must reach out to them or respond to them.

· Talk with loved ones who are healthy and sympathetic during this time for comfort and reassurance

· Loved ones are NOT entitled to a space in your life irrespective of their behavior. A space in your life is EARNED and requires mutually respectful behavior. Do not let yourself feel obligated to allow someone in your life just because they are family.


4) GETTING OFF YOUR ROUTINE- The holidays are busy with lots of travel, parties, food/alcohol, etc. Many people find themselves failing to maintain their normal routines regarding sleep, diet, working out, etc. When we are off of our routine, we can often feel uncomfortable and maybe guilty for allowing ourselves to deviate.


If you feel justified guilt for falling out of your routine:

· If you have fallen COMPLETELY out of your routine and you know that you can apply more discipline in your daily structure, it may be helpful to think of reasonable holiday modifications to your normal routine that could keep you on track overall, but with increased flexibility (i.e. you usually workout 4-5 days a week, but during the holidays you accept that you may only be able to workout 3-4 days a week due to events)

· Set goals for the holidays regarding sleep, diet, and exercise that are actually do-able! Many people set goals that are unrealistic and then feel like a failure because they cannot meet them. Set yourself up for success by considering reasonable goals.


If you feel unjustified guilt for falling out of your routine:

· Remind yourself that memories are important and that temporarily sacrificed goals may be ok in the efforts of making memories with loved ones

· Remind yourself that no one meets their goals or follows their routine 100% of the time and that it is ok to take a temporary break

· Remind yourself of your efforts to meet SOME of your goals during this season (ie. eating a healthy breakfast and lunch, but having a delicious dinner with loved ones).

· Make a plan and commitment to “getting back on track” after the holidays, and let yourself ENJOY the holiday season with a relaxed routine


Written by: Kelly Birkhold, LCSW




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