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For many people the holidays are the saddest time of the year. The holidays are meant to be a time of joy, warmth, excitement and anticipation of the year ahead, and for some people this is indeed the case. But many of us live most of the time with unresolved conflicts, loneliness, a need to be understood and loved—and the holidays only serve to exacerbate our private feelings of quiet desperation. Some of the problems and emotions which we hold in check during most months of the year tend to surface during the holidays.
In our society we define the holidays as the time of year when everyone should be happy, busy, energetic, spending money for those they love, and sharing wonderful feelings. It’s the time for family togetherness and for friends to share in the spirit of the season. We tend to idealize this time of the year, and it is not hard to understand why—we are constantly bombarded with messages of joy and celebration through advertising (businesses usually have a higher sales volume this time of the year than any other). And our religious and cultural traditions also tell us that this is the season for love, togetherness, celebration, and positive personal and interpersonal feelings. From all around the message comes to us loud and clear: Be Happy!
But does this all-pervasive message lift us to a happy place? Sometimes it does. Just as often, though, the message serves as a painful reminder that things may not be all that they should be in our lives. Rather than yielding to the positive spirit of the season, we may experience a nagging feeling that things are not right, that this is just a coverup, that we ultimately feel lonely deep down inside. We may even see hypocrisy around us ... and resent it. Unfortunately, many face these more negative feelings about the holidays in silence. It may be difficult to find anyone who is willing to listen to this darker view of the holidays, or to validate it. (The irony in this situation, however, is that if we were able to express our negativity about the holidays more freely and with the support of others, we would not feel so alone and the holidays could indeed be a time of interpersonal warmth and joy!)
The holidays put a strain on most people. The financial burden of the holidays is more than many people can bear—you might find yourself spending more money than you should, and this in itself can cast an unsettling pall on the season. (Hint: look closely at your budget and weigh your expenditures against the real value of the gifts. You may discover that making some inexpensive but personally meaningful handmade gifts for other people may come closer to the true spirit of the holidays.) In addition, the holidays can create a physical burden. We tend to increase our stress levels when we deal with crowds of shoppers under pressure, when everything has to be done by a certain date, when we have to attend more than the normal number of social events, when we drink, when we don’t take the time to exercise, and when we overeat. All of these factors can make us feel out of control, helpless, and certainly down.
A large part of the burden of the holidays is linked to emotional factors. We tend to expect too much from the holidays: an idealized celebration, just the right gifts, a perfect meal, warmth and love from our family and friends, and hearing from long-lost friends. We set ourselves up for disappointment when our expectations are unrealistic. And many families have unresolved conflicts which can become more apparent during the holidays, mainly because this is when families often spend time together. Misunderstandings and conflict can ignite quickly under the pressure of the holidays, especially when family members and friends fail to communicate their expectations adequately. The holidays can be especially difficult when we don’t adapt to change: sometimes the holidays remind us of people who are no longer present in our lives, and this can lead to great loneliness and sadness ... which are magnified all the more when we see others having a good time.
The holiday blues come upon us when we feel overwhelmed and helpless to do anything about it. We feel that there is so much to do, so many people to deal with, so many deadlines, so much money to spend—and there are just not enough resources to accomplish everything. We feel that we should be happy and excited, yet there is this nagging knowledge that the pressures on us are just too great and that our expectations will not be realized. We long for fulfillment, especially at this time of the year. We need comfort, nurturance, and belonging. Many of us live with our frustrations much of the time, most of the year, and they stay generally under control—but the holidays seem to make everything large. The holiday blues are a normal and expected response to stress, loss, unresolved conflicts, and unfulfilled promises ... experiences most of us have. The blues during the holidays can serve as a warning that things may not always be right in our lives and that we need to examine the way we live. In that sense the holiday blues can actually be a wonderful gift, spurring us to take control over the important personal issues which deserve our real attention.
Rather than stressing out this holiday season, vow to make things easy on yourself so that you can capture the real joy and happiness that can come at this time of the year. If you start to feel down in the dumps, it helps to accept the fact that this is part of the human condition. The holidays accentuate many feelings, both positive and negative. Comfort yourself and share your private feelings with people who will understand and support you. This holiday season open yourself to the love that is within you and all around you. Celebrate life and celebrate it well.
Dysthymia, Depression and the Holiday Blues
Many people experience the holiday blues. This is usually a temporary condition and should be distinguished from depression which is longer lasting and usually has more serious symptoms. Depression is persistent and usually interferes with one’s work, friendships, family life and physical health. Depressive episodes usually last several months and they can recur throughout a person’s lifetime. Common symptoms of depression include despair, guilt, unending misery, low self-esteem, self-destructive thoughts, irritability, a feeling of helplessness, difficulty in concentrating and making decisions, loss of interest in life and an inability to experience pleasure. There may also be physical symptoms such as fatigue, loss of appetite, insomnia (or sometimes overeating and oversleeping), as well as pain and other bodily complaints.
Dysthymia, or low-level depression, has many characteristics in common with the holiday blues, although, again, the holiday blues are temporary. Dysthymia by definition is an overwhelming but chronic state of depression which lasts at least two years. It is less disabling than major depression so that many of those with dysthymia are able to hold jobs and maintain an adequate interpersonal life. It occurs twice as often in women as it does in men and symptoms usually first appear in adolescence or young adulthood. Although the symptoms are usually not as severe as those of major depression, it is a serious condition and, if not treated, can actually lead to major depression. In the absence of any other cause for these symptoms, the dysthymic person is one who has had at least two of the following symptoms for two years:
- poor appetite or overeating
- insomnia or oversleeping
- fatigue or low energy
- low self-esteem
- poor concentration or difficulty making decisions
- feelings of hopelessness
The holiday blues can be characterized by any of these symptoms of dysthymia, but they are usually limited to the holiday season. The holiday blues also may bring on irritability, angry blowups, excessive brooding, difficulty finding pleasure in life, guilt, and avoiding other people. Whenever you find yourself feeling down and rotten over the holiday season, you may well have the holiday blues. The person with dysthymia is of course more prone to experiencing these symptoms during the holidays, but the holiday blues can hit anyone—dysthymic, depressed, or not.
Fortunately, and the news is good, all three of these conditions are treatable with psychotherapy and other therapeutic modalities. Gaining insight into your life circumstances, talking to a supportive and objective listener, gaining the understanding of other people, changing the way you think about and deal with your problems, communicating differently, moving from despair to finding meaning in your life—all of these things can happen in therapy, and the sufferer can gain relief from these debilitating feelings (and this may be the greatest gift of all for the holiday season).
How to Keep the Blues Away And Have a Joyful Holiday?
Here are some strategies you can adopt to keep the blues at bay and to make the most of the holiday season:
- Be realistic. The picture-perfect holiday gathering is usually just that: a picture that we see often in the media. However, it does not characterize most families. Try to keep your expectations of the holidays in line with the true circumstances of your life, and celebrate the joy of what you have rather than the unattainable joy of what you wish you had. Holiday traditions must change over the years, just as the participants change: clinging to old expectations and trying to recreate old feelings which are now part of your memories can contribute to a blue holiday. On the other hand, you should continue to adhere to those old rituals which are realistic.
- Openly acknowledge your feelings. If you are feeling down at the time of the holidays, give yourself permission to bring these feelings into your life. It’s natural to feel the loss of, and to grieve, those people and experiences that are no longer a part of your life. Allow yourself to see the holidays as a time of reflection as well as a celebration of what your life is now. Some people even like to make a list or keep a journal of all they are grateful for.
- Seek Out Support. If you feel isolated and lonely, seek out support from friends, the community, religious organizations, therapy, and other sources that can provide you with companionship and understanding during the holidays. You may even want to volunteer your services at a religious or community function. This is an effective way of involving yourself in activities which will brighten your holidays and allow you to meet new people.
- Set Your Conflicts Aside. Acceptance can be a powerful ally. Rather than frustrating yourself with the hope that your differences with family members and friends will go away during the holidays, try to accept people just as they are. Leave your old grievances and discussions about unresolved feelings aside and save them for a more appropriate time. The holidays are stressful enough without introducing even more conflict into the situation.
- Find a Calendar and Make a Schedule. Make a list of everything you need to do for the holidays and then assign certain dates for accomplishing them. Don’t leave it all till the end and don’t plan to do more than you can comfortably accomplish. And be sure to schedule time for comfort, relaxation and solitude. This will provide you with a feeling of control over the situation and the feeling that things are not hopeless. It helps, too, to go over your budget and not to spend more than you can realistically afford.
- Stay Healthy. You are far less likely to feel overwhelmed during the holidays if you exercise and get your normal amount of sleep. Don’t feel pressured to eat and drink too much just because it’s the holiday season. Take care of yourself and make the holidays a true celebration of life and all it can be.
Do the Holidays Make You SAD?
Many people become sluggish and gloomy as the days of winter approach, a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD). This may have nothing to do with the holidays at all, although they do coincidentally occur at this time of the year. The prevalence of SAD increases the further north one lives: about 2% of the population of Florida suffers from SAD, while the incidence is about 9% in Alaska. Seasonal depression seems to be related to the length of the days and changes in the availability of sunlight. Changes occur in our bodies as a response to the shortening of the days, somewhat in the same way that some animals go into hibernation in the winter. More than three-fourths of those who suffer from SAD are women, and most are in their twenties, thirties and forties.
SAD is a serious depression that recurs each year at the same time. It starts in the fall and ends in the spring. The symptoms are similar to those of major depression: lethargy, anxiety, sadness, irritability, concentration difficulty, withdrawal into solitude, and loss of interest in life. Some people with SAD may feel self-destructive. Also many experience an excessive need to sleep, increased appetite and a weight gain of as much as ten pounds.
Fortunately, this very debilitating condition can be treated. Please call to make an appointment for a consultation. Nobody deserves a SAD holiday.
A Wellness Tip:
If you have a history of SAD, in addition to therapy, plan ahead to remember to keep more lights on in your home and workplace. Replace standard light bulbs with “full spectrum” bulbs which are usually available at your local lighting or hardware store.
Wishing you joy and a celebration of the wonders of life this holiday season.