Christmas Therapy

The holidays are a time when a lot of folks seem to focus on happiness. It’s Christmas! Let’s gather around the tree, sing carols, laugh, and have a happy time. Unfortunately, holiday happiness can be elusive because too often people tend to center their search around “me,” always asking, what do “I” need to do to make “myself” happier? If this sounds like you, the problem here is that you’re being self-serving and looking for answers that are defined by your needs, your frustrations, your anxieties, your difficulties. “But,” you ask, “how can I possibly help myself if I don’t center my plans and actions around myself?”

Here’s a thought: Instead of putting yourself as the main ingredient in the recipe, take yourself out of the recipe. Consider the possibility that, whatever your difficulty, you can use the emotions it generates within you to increase your sensitivity to others who suffer from trauma and conflicts similar to yours. This empathy will not only help others, but yourself as well. That’s right, taking yourself out of the formula will encourage you to reach out to others. The bonus? You will discover that reaching out will bring you ample helpings of personal satisfaction – call it happiness if you want, but it’s much more – and help you cope better with your problems. Many people feel that happiness is something that is acquired, like a trophy, a promotion, or winning the lottery. Psychology research shows, however, that happiness emerges from things you do, not from things you acquire. Reaching out to others, committing to a cause, working hard at a task, persisting in spite of frustration and adversity – these sorts of things seem more related to being happy than merely acquiring something.

Viewed from this perspective, one clear road to happiness involves empathy, a social responsiveness that does not involve a search for happiness, but a desire to help others because you understand their need. For instance, if you have been previously victimized or are presently dealing with emotional upheaval in similar ways as someone else, who can understand their plight better than you? Who is better equipped to relate to them than you? The true beauty of empathy and helping others, however, is that you reap the psychological benefits of contentment, satisfaction, and self-actualization. There is no more effective therapy than empathetic service to others. It’s not that empathy brings you happiness; it’s that empathy brings you a sense of being a useful person.

Here are some comments from clients in group therapy.

“Telling my story helped me face it as real. Then I knew others’ stories were real, too. I felt less alone. New people would show up. It was hard for me to listen to them because I was reliving my own experience. But I understood them, and knew they understood me. That was so cool.”

“I discovered I could help others. Hell, if I could do that, I should be able to face myself. That brought me a lot of inner peace.”

“It was amazing. I wasn’t the only one hurting. Others were there, too. Whenever I felt like I was drowning, I threw a lifeline to others in the group. We taught each other how to save ourselves.”

Whatever your plight, you are not alone in your difficulties. The best way to facilitate your ability to cope is to make sure that – as you travel the road to discovering that you are useful – you leave no one behind. Christmas is unique in offering you that pathway. Take it. Doing so will help you will find yourself participating in – and enjoying the richness of – the human adventure.

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