To Cope with Holiday Loneliness, Start by Listening

I’d like to start out this post about overcoming holiday loneliness by sharing a snippet of a conversation I heard this morning at my local grocery store:

Mom 1: You know that movie A Christmas Story? At least two channels play it on loop from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day.

Mom 2: Looks like we’ll be going to my uncle’s place for Christmas.

Mom 1: Last night I watched some good holiday stuff—the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, which had some great performances, and the Washington DC Christmas tree lighting.

Mom 2: We went to my sister’s last year, but it was too crowded. My kids ended up eating on the floor with their plates in their laps.

Mom 1: I love the Hallmark Channel. Those schmaltzy holiday movies are my favorite.

Mom 2: We’re definitely going to be home for Christmas day morning, though. We love opening our presents by the tree.

These moms were ostensibly having a conversation about the holidays. But it sounded more like they were performing their own holiday-themed monologues with no regard to what the other person was saying. I wondered what these moms actually took away from this conversation. Did either mom feel as if she’d truly connected with the other?

As a psychologist who specializes in working with moms, I’ve been spending a lot of time recently talking about how lonely the holiday season can be. Many moms try hard to maintain the illusion that they are awash in holiday good cheer, when in reality they feel stressed and isolated. Some find themselves missing loved ones who are no longer with them, or regretting family spats that have led to long-standing family-wide silent treatments. This year is particularly stressful, as the holidays are occurring against a backdrop of national turmoil. Many moms are sad and scared and looking to find like-minded others.

While I absolutely support moms who are trying to connect, I don’t agree with the way some of them are going about it. Specifically, some moms are so consumed with putting their own ideas out there (whether in person, like those ladies in the grocery store, or on social media) that they’re not paying any attention to what’s coming back at them.

Here’s an example: Lisa spent a lot of time alone at home, posting on Facebook and waiting for likes and responses. When few likes or responses followed, she felt lonely and despondent. But what she did not consider was that her posts didn’t lend themselves to commentary or any sort of back-and-forth conversation. Her posts were about, among other things, the meatloaf she’d made and her love of Phil Collins. Don’t get me wrong—I love Sussudio as much as the next gal who was raised in the 80s. But is the oeuvre of Phil Collins really an effective starting point for a meaningful dialogue?

If you’re experiencing holiday loneliness, your goal should not simply be to talk to others. Your goal should be to listen to them. Getting yourself outside and interacting with people face-to-face is a good place to start. You don’t have to go anywhere special—the line at Starbucks or your kids’ school dropoff will do. Once you’re out, make it your mission to really hear what the other person is saying. In cognitive-behavioral therapy, we encourage people to pay close enough attention to others so that they can make a summary statement of everything the other person just said to them (for example, “You get sick of A Christmas Story? I do, too! I haven’t seen the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show; I should check that out next year.”)

The holiday season, and this one in particular, can be challenging and isolating. To overcome holiday loneliness, start by “putting your listening ears on,” as my two year-old would say. It’s only by listening to each other that we can make truly meaningful connections.

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I’m Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco, Ph.D., aka DrCBTMom. DrCBTMom.com combines the expert advice of a self-help book with the warmth and readability of a mommy blog.
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