Turning Secular Holiday “Blahs” Into Holiday “Ahhs”

By Dr. Ann Lane, Registered and Licensed Psychotherapist

As the holiday season approaches, we are bombarded with glossy images of families interacting with each other with warmth, humor, love and respect. While “perfect family harmony” is difficult to achieve under most circumstances, it is particularly unattainable for those who are struggling with religious conflicts, both within and without. For them, the holidays may be fraught with apprehension, sadness and anxiety.

There are families that are more accepting of members who have broken away from religion. During family gatherings, they are able to set aside ideological differences, enjoy each other and maintain positive emotional bonds. That does not preclude hurt, disappointment, frustrations from both sides. However, the love and acceptance allows the relationships to continue unharmed.

This is not the case for many others. Some who have chosen the secular path may be estranged from family. While distancing from negative family relationships may feel liberating on one hand, on the other, feelings of loss are common. The early phases of breaking away from families and/or friends who reject non-believers are especially difficult. One may experience grief that’s associated with loss of family, loss of tradition, loss of status in the community and a loss of belonging.

There are others who, despite strong secular convictions, have not revealed themselves to family. In order to avoid conflict, judgment or criticism, some people maintain a front of piety and devoutness to no-longer-held beliefs. They suffer silently and feel alienated not only from others but from themselves. Their fears of rejection and loss keep them in “the secular closet” so to speak.

Some openly secular people continue attending family holiday gatherings in hopes of gaining the support, acceptance and love they crave. Instead, differences in religious beliefs often lead to hostility, strong judgment and opposition. “Hot buttons” are pushed and bad feelings are triggered for everyone. (Variations on scenarios depend on many factors such as personalities, circumstances, stage of de-conversion, pre-existing family dynamics. The above are just a few representative samples.)

While the holidays may present emotional and interpersonal challenges, there are ways to minimize their negative effects. The following are just a few coping strategies that I’d like to suggest which might turn holiday “blahs” into holiday “ahhs”:

  • Keep expectations real. If you choose to interact with the critics and “guilters”, discard any illusions about how things will be different this holiday.
  • Accept that for some people your dissension from their faith is experienced as disrespect and personal rejection. If you don’t expect a change of heart, you won’t be disappointed
  • Remember that not all comments or questions by family members are intended to be hurtful.  Family may genuinely be worried about your “salvation” or “redemption”. They may be baffled by your loss of belief and are trying to understand. In a tense and emotional situation, it is not difficult to misinterpret something benign to feel like an assault.   Unnecessary defensiveness may be averted by clarification of what is being said and why.
  • Establish internal boundaries. Do not take in someone else’s negative characterization of you as immoral or untrustworthy if you know that not to be true.  Do not allow people to “guilt” you about your choice. Indoctrinations in our earliest, formative years can difficult to shed, and guilt-inducing methods may trigger old feelings of shame and fear. You cannot control how others view you; however, you can control what you internalize and what you choose to ignore.
  • Don’t isolate. During the early stages of religion recovery, loneliness may feel overwhelming. You do not have to be alone. If you are either estranged from family or unwilling to spend embroiled in hostile religious debates, traditions and celebrations can be enjoyed with other like minded people. There are humanistic societies, secular assemblies and MeetUps where meaningful connections can be developed and the sense of belonging, authenticity, support and personal growth can be achieved. (Now’s a great time to check-out the FREE UnitedCoR app and website-based calendar to find groups of like-minded people nearest you, and join one of their wonderful, welcoming events!)

In closing, being alone does not have to be a lonely experience. You can drown in ruminations and negative thinking, or you can choose to take care of yourself and be liberated. Indulging in simple pleasures, reviewing life’s goals, volunteering to help those less-fortunate than you are life-enhancing experiences.

Remembering Phil Session and friends in the Austin Atheists Helping the Homeless.

Above all, give yourself the best holiday gift ever: a life of authenticity! From my family, friends and colleagues to each of you, I want to wish everyone a very happy, inclusive and memorable holiday season ahead, and best wishes for a Happy New Year in 2018.