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When the Holidays Hurt

Tian Dayton MA, PhD, TEP
There is a powerful expectation of joy around the holidays—a feeling in the atmosphere that now is the moment to affirm family bonds and embrace and appreciate all the good that life has to offer. But for those in recovery who are dealing with the pain of ruptured attachments, the holidays can be a stark reminder not only of what they have, but of what they are missing. When the child in them hears bells ringing, it may remind them not only of sumptuous tables of treats, but also of gatherings that devolved into chaotic and painful reminders of all that had gone awry in their families. For these folks, the holidays can bring up pain that can block them from feeling like participating in the gaiety of the season.


Offering groups or workshops that use this moment in time to process the grief that is blocking the pleasure can help clients use what gets triggered during the holidays for healing rather than digging further into an emotional hole. One of my touching holiday memories was when a young man very tentatively opened up to the yearning he felt to simply return, just for a moment, to the family he remembered as a boy. The family he could still count on. He enrolled group members as various people in his family and created a scene from his bank of memories in which they all stood around the piano and sang “Silent Night.” A simple moment that had felt lost to him forever returned to him as he learned finally how to open his heart to allow others to fill in where fate had left off. He never forgot it, and those who were present didn’t either.


We remember through our senses and our feelings. Sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes are our windows into our past. We remember most what we treasure and value most highly or those memories that have powerful feeling attached to them. These two doorways into our memory bank—senses and emotions—mean that holiday memories have a very special punch for us. The holidays are filled with heartwarming sights, familiar songs, and traditional tastes and smells that carry us straight back to the heart of our homes. So if there is hurt around the hearth, that hurt can come right back during this season. The very sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that we cherish can also act as powerful memory triggers that send us sailing back in time. Scenes of what went right, along with scenes of what went wrong, dance in our heads mocking the merriment of the season and making everyone else seems to be having such a good time while we have that “through the looking glass” feeling of being somehow separate from the gaiety of our surroundings.


The grief spectrogram that I use in Relational Trauma Repair can be adapted for use around the holidays. This experiential process can be used by itself or it can be a springboard into role-plays. In either case it provides a safe space to process both sides of the holiday season.


Holiday Spectrogram: What the Holidays Bringing Up for Me




  1. To discern levels of emotional intensity so that clients can understand how much or how little of any particular emotion they may be experiencing
  2. To work with the pain, sadness, and anger that can drive depression, anxiety, and relapse around the holiday season
  3. To make unconscious material conscious by experiencing the frozen feelings that are blocking real emotion
  4. To allow group members to identify with and connect with each other




1. Draw an imaginary line dividing the room down the middle, showing group members where it is as you do so. 


2. Explain to the participants that each end of the room represents an extreme and that 50 percent is the midpoint. So, one end of the room is 0 percent and the other 100 percent. 


3. Now choose some of the questions from the list below that you feel are relevant to your particular group and ask participants to stand at whatever point along the continuum that feels right for them in response. 


  • How much yearning do you feel around the holidays for what you feel was lost?
  • How much sadness do you feel? 
  • How much anger do you feel? 
  • How blocked are you from getting in touch with your genuine feelings involved in this issue? 
  • How much trouble are you having organizing yourself? 
  • How out of sync with “holiday joy” do you feel? 
  • How much joy do you feel around the holidays?
  • How much gratitude do you feel around the holidays?
  • How much do you feel your grief has contributed to your becoming a deeper person? 
  • How tired do you feel? 
  • How much hope do you feel about your life and the future? 


5. After each question, allow people to spontaneously share feelings that come up for them. The group can share so everyone can hear or they can share in subgroups with those who are next to them on the spectrogram. You can do a mixture of forms of sharing; that is, on one question you can let the group share in the large group and on another they can share in subgroups with those who are standing near them along the spectrogram. I generally allow the group to choose however they would like to share by simply asking “Would you like to share in the large group or subgroups on this one?” 


6. Repeat this process for as many questions as can be absorbed. Generally three or four will be plenty, but you can do more if the group wishes to. 




Allow plenty of time for the group to share what feelings came up for them around doing this exercise. Invite any who wish to speak about a holiday memory that they hold dear.
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Tian Dayton, PhD, is the author of sixteen books, including The ACoA Trauma Syndrome; Emotional Sobriety; Trauma and Addiction; Forgiving and Moving On; and The Living Stage. In addition, Dr. Dayton has developed a model for using sociometry and psychodrama to resolve issues related to relationship trauma repair. She is a board-certified trainer in psychodrama, sociometry, and group psychotherapy and is the director of The New York Psychodrama Training Institute.