Coping at Christmas when life hasn't gone to plan

Christmas can be a challenge when our lives haven't turned out as we'd hoped - say if we're single when we wanted to be in love; childless when we wanted kids; or lost when we'd hoped to have found our path. Here are some suggestions from someone who's been there.

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I don't know about you but Christmas pushes my buttons. It stirs up my emotions. It reopens old wounds. And it often sparks tears.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a bah humbug person. I love many aspects of Christmas: the repetitive, jolly tunes on the radio and the sparkly, sequined dresses we get to wear. I love playing silly games with relatives I haven't seen for ages after a big turkey meal. And I'm a big fan of mince pies.

Yet Christmas also has this uncanny ability to hit me where it hurts. It reminds me of the things that I don't have, of the people that I've lost and of painful Christmases from my past.

I wonder if it's the same for you.

So far, I'm holding up well. I'm doing my best to detach from the craziness of Christmas shopping and to trust that whatever I manage to show up with on the day will suffice. I've learned that I don't have to be perfect or give perfect gifts in order to feel loved and good enough.

And as yet, I haven't been hit by the wave of grief over not having children that engulfed me last year and that led me to write an epic blog post about my ambivalence about motherhood.

I'm also managing to focus on what I do have, rather than on the things I don't. Miraculously, I now have a fiancé after many years of singleness, dysfunctional relationships, bemusement, heartache and loss.

But, it's early days. I haven't spent time with my family of origin yet, which often triggers sadness and loss because my mum is still battling her own unhealthy behaviours and my dad and grandparents passed away many years ago.

So knowing that I could be in for some tricky times, how can I take care of myself? And how can you take care of yourself if your emotions get stirred up too?

Here are some suggestions that have worked for me in the past:

Embrace the feelings

I used to be scared of my feelings. I used to believe that if I began to feel them, I'd be overwhelmed. So I ran from my feelings or numbed them out. I overate and drank too much, especially at Christmas. I over-exercised and I over-worked (I still struggle with that one). And I escaped my real feelings by creating dramas and crises with men who weren't good for me.

But I've learned that the best thing I can do is to allow my feelings space to surface. They are there anyway, and if I don't let them out in healthy ways, they'll come out sideways, in angry bursts or food binges.

We have to feel the feelings to heal them. At Christmas, that means stepping back from the stresses and pressures and sitting still more, instead of running around. It means accepting that we've done enough and that we are enough. It means acknowledging that we sometimes feel sad and that it's OK to feel that way.

Restrict time spent on social media

As much as I know that people only show the glossy side of their lives on Facebook or Instagram, I still feel triggered by the non-stop feed of photos of huge, happy families at Christmas. They remind me of the children I've never had and of difficult family times in my past.

But I have a choice. I can allow myself some time off social media over the coming days. I see this as an act of self-care. It also means I can connect with the people I'm with in real life, rather than spend time in a virtual world. If I do go online, I can restrict myself to my Facebook group or my membership community, where I know people tell the truth, or to other similar groups.

Stay close to my tribe

I'm so grateful to have a phone full of numbers of people in a similar position to me - women whose lives haven't gone to plan either and who are on their own journey of personal development and self-discovery - women who don't have the perfect family life; women who are willing and able to talk about the fact they struggle with grief at this time of year. I choose to stay in touch with my friends, with my tribe, and to reach out to them when I need support.

Practise mindfulness and tap into spirituality

By nature, I'm a restless, anxious person. I tend to worry a lot. And I'm sensitive too. I feel things deeply. Meditation helps to ground me, but I'm resistant to it. As I wrote in my book, it's generally the people who find it the hardest to meditate who need it the most. I put myself in that category.

But I commit to giving it a go. I commit to sitting still, to listening to a mindfulness app, a meditation on YouTube, or a song that helps me to feel at peace. I commit to reading the daily readings that calm me, and to handing my worries over to something greater than myself.

Cultivate gratitude

I know you don't need reminding of this but I'm reminding myself. When I adopt an attitude of gratitude, when I cherish what I have rather than long for the things I don't have, I feel content. My life didn't go to plan but I have plenty of love in my life. Even if you don't have all the things that you dream of, I hope you can feel the love you have around you. 

Look ahead with excitement and expectation

Next year is a big one for me. I'll be getting married at the tender age of 48. It's been a long time coming and I've had to do a lot of work on myself to get here. Some of my other dreams are coming true too - I'll be hosting my first foreign retreats. I've even applied to do a TEDx talk.

It hasn't been easy. I've felt a lot of fear. I've felt the growing pains. But I have made these things happen. Whenever I feel blue, I can focus on 2019 and all the promise it brings.

Some of you will have amazing things to look forward to also, but others might not. You might be tired of being alone, exasperated with dating, desperately sad about not having children, or feeling soul dead in your career but with no clue how to get out.

I get it. I've been there. And I have changed. I have changed because I made a decision to change, to look inside myself, understand my unhealthy patterns and find ways to challenge those patterns. I believe transformation is possible for everyone. If I didn't, I wouldn't do the work that I do.

So whatever Christmas holds for you, I hope that you can take really good care of yourself, honour your feelings, and emerge from the festive season with hope - hope that by next Christmas, your story could be completely different.

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Katherine Baldwin

Midlife Mentor, Dating & Relationships Coach, Author of 'How to Fall in Love'

I work with women and men who are ready to change their lives or careers and with those who want to find love. I guide people on a journey of inner transformation, similar to the journey I've been on. I know how it feels to be stuck in life and to be reluctantly single, and I know what it takes to change and find love. My book 'How to Fall in Love - A 10-Step Journey to the Heart' describes how I went from being a single woman, living in London, bored with my work and longing for a more fulfilling life to a woman in love, engaged to be married, living on the Dorset coast and doing work that makes my heart sing. I have been in recovery from an eating disorder, workaholism and dysfunctional relationship patterns for 14 years, during which time I've mentored and coached others on their journey to a healthier, happier life. I have a Diploma in Counselling and Psychotherapy Skills from the Westminster Pastoral Foundation. In my former life as a news journalist, I reported for Reuters from the Houses of Parliament and travelled with the prime minister. I climbed high but despite my external success, I felt empty inside. Since then, I've turned my life upside down in the best possible way. I work 1-2-1 and in groups, run workshops, courses and seaside retreats. I write for the national media and have appeared on radio and TV, most recently on Woman's Hour. I also speak to business leaders, students and school children about the importance of authenticity and of sharing our internal battles. I'm an advocate of wholehearted living. I do my best to walk the walk.