If you feel more overwhelmed than overjoyed by the arrival of the winter holidays, you’re not alone. Intuitive psychologist Susan Apollon shares eleven insights
to help you fight seasonal dread and have a holly-jolly holiday instead.

The holiday season is here, and if you’re like most people, you’re dealing with a snowstorm of not-so-joyful feelings. First, you have the stress of buying a vast array of gifts and juggling an over-packed schedule. You have obligatory family visits, which may carry their own emotional baggage. And if someone you love has recently passed away, you may find yourself trying to “celebrate” through a miasma of sadness. It’s no wonder that the holidays invoke a sense of dread instead of heralding the peace and joy we want them to bring.

“Most of us have mixed feelings about the winter holidays,” says Susan Apollon, author of Touched by the Extraordinary, Book Two: Healing Stories of Love, Loss & Hope. “On one hand, we look forward to the festive atmosphere and the spiritual rituals. On the other, we dread the stress and expense, not to mention the unresolved grief that manifests this time of year. And running through it all is the sense that the holidays should look and feel a certain way.”

According to Apollon, the holidays really can be, if not greeting card perfect, then at least, rich and rewarding in their own very real way. But first, you’ve got to learn to manage your expectations and live each moment to the fullest. Read on to learn some of Apollon’s tips on how to defuse your seasonal dread and infuse your holidays with joy and peace.

Love and forgive yourself unconditionally. This may seem like an odd way to begin, but Apollon says self-love and forgiveness—which may be thought of as two sides of the same coin—are at the heart of everything. Before you can make peace with, say, the emotionally abusive mother you dread seeing at your Hanukkah get-together, you must first make peace with yourself. The adage is true: If you want to love others unconditionally, you have to first love yourself. And loving yourself is really the key to resolving deep-seated feelings of pain and guilt that surface during the holidays.

“People tend to be very hard on themselves,” says Apollon. “We must all learn to accept the fact that right now we are exactly where we are supposed to be on our spiritual journey. That doesn’t mean you should stop striving to improve the aspects you know need work. It does mean realizing you are human. Allow yourself time to relax, to rest, and even to cry if you need to. By simply allowing yourself to feel the way you feel, the emotional load on your back will lighten.”

Of course, it’s easy to say those two little words—forgive yourself—but most of us don’t really know how to do it. Apollon recommends an eleven-step process for finding this elusive sense of inner peace. It can also be used to help you forgive others or to simply relax and center yourself before a stressful holiday event. (EDITOR: See attached tip sheet.)

Choose to forgive others. If you are holding a grudge against the cousin who excluded you from her wedding invitation list, you will dread seeing her at the big Christmas dinner. Apollon says the bad feelings that arise whenever you think of this slight are a sign that you need to forgive her. Doing so will dissolve the tension between the two of you and will make the event far more pleasant. And remember, you’re not doing it for her—you’re doing it for you.

“Forgiveness is a function of love,” insists Apollon. “It is vitally important that you learn to forgive the people who have wronged you. Remember that everyone on earth is walking their own path and is trying to do the best they can. The strongest choice you could possibly make is to let go of any unresolved anger and choose to forgive them. It is not easy, but it is deeply rewarding. The choices you make have different energetic vibrations, and forgiveness and love carry with them the highest resonance. When you don’t forgive, you deny yourself a higher energetic payoff.”

But what if there’s someone in your life you are simply not ready to forgive? That’s okay, says Apollon. Just accept that there is a price to be paid in terms of your own peace of mind. It’s okay to avoid holiday events if you are absolutely not ready to see these people. But because life is about constant growth, know that one day you may be better equipped to let go of old grievances. Until then, continue to love yourself unconditionally and treat yourself well.

Know what you can and cannot control. Learning that you can control only your own actions and feelings is vital to becoming a happier person. Many people cannot forgive others and move away from past pain because they don’t understand this fact.

“Control struggles are huge emotion and energy drainers,” says Apollon. “The moment you understand that you can manage only your own feelings and thoughts, you will find power you didn’t know you had. When you continue to hold someone accountable for a past grievance, you allow her to hurt you all over again. But when you choose to simply let it go, you give yourself permission to heal and you release the ghost that was holding you captive.”

Another way to look at an old grudge is to remind yourself that everyone is simply doing the best he or she can do under the circumstances. Perhaps your parents didn’t always make great choices when they raised you, but they did the best job they could at the moment. Remind yourself of this fact when you see your grumpy Aunt Eunice eye you critically as you help yourself to seconds at dinner. Focus on old memories that you shared with Aunt Eunice before a rift grew between you. You will find love in those memories and they will give the two of you common ground. By choosing to love Aunt Eunice or anyone else who once made your blood boil, you are actually empowering yourself and saving valuable emotional energy!

When grief rears up, learn to “Face, Embrace, and Replace It.” If you’re dealing with grief at the holidays—perhaps due to a death in the family, an estrangement from someone you love, or a divorce—don’t try to deny your pain. Rather, make a conscious effort to work through it. Apollon’s mantra on dealing with grief is “face it, embrace it, and replace it.” In other words, the only way to “get over” sadness is to experience it. Grief can take on many forms, especially around this time of year.

“If you need to cry, cry, even if you’re at a party and have to leave the room,” says Apollon. “You might even set aside an evening to get in touch with your grief. Fix the cocoa you used to drink with your mother or go through your photo albums. It’s healthier to feel the sadness and loss than to detach yourself from it. It’s right and normal to grieve; just don’t make it the dominant part of who you are.”

Don’t over-commit to the holidays. Most people vow that this year they won’t stretch themselves too thin (physically, emotionally, and financially), but somehow they spend the holidays exhausted, frazzled, and broke. It is hard to feel joyful and loving when you are exhausted from too many parties and you’re out of cash. It really is okay to choose only a few special events to attend—and don’t feel guilty about skipping out on your in-laws’ personal-drama-filled party in favor of a quiet evening baking cookies and wrapping presents with your kids. It’s your life, and you get to live it your way.

“Also, don’t overspend,” cautions Apollon. “The true meaning of the season has nothing to do with presents and price tags. You can still give thoughtful gifts to your family and friends without racking up a huge, stressful credit card bill. A batch of homemade salsa or even a heartfelt letter can be more appreciated than a $100 blouse, and it also helps you feel responsible, calm, and in control of your finances.”

Get in the joy zone. In order to be ready for the impending holiday cheer, you may need a little inspiration. Not everyone starts off the season in a joyful mood. Some people, perhaps even most people, need a little boost to get there. You can rev up your level of good cheer by doing something that makes you feel great.

Indulge in a sinful dessert or sleep in sheets with a high thread count to feel pampered. Listen to your favorite holiday album, sip eggnog, or attend temple to get in a seasonal mood. Remember that peace and joy are contagious, so if you put it out there, chances are very good that you will get it back! Also, keep in mind that others are watching you and will see how empowered you become just by being happy.

“You can also seek happiness by committing random acts of kindness,” says Apollon. “It can be something as small as saying, ‘Have a blessed day’ to a stranger or donating money to a charity. The act does not matter; it’s the love behind the act that counts.”

Do a practice run before the dreaded event. Before going to a holiday function, you can actually “rehearse” the event to help you get in a positive frame of mind. (You might try this during the eleven-step “peace process” Apollon recommends.) Chances are that at any holiday get-together, there will be at least one person you don’t really want to see. Think of this person and begin to surround him or her with love and forgiveness (if need be). You can visualize yourself approaching this person and speaking with love and kindness. When you fill yourself with love, you will be able to enter the party with the proper frame of mind—and you may find that being kind and spreading holiday cheer is a little easier than you had expected!

Stay in the moment. “Think about the vast amount of time you spend dwelling on the past or worrying about the future,” says Apollon. “You may realize that you spend very little time actually existing in the present moment! This is very unhealthy. In fact, it is the source of virtually all anxiety and depression. Your energy is far more powerful when it is there with you as much as possible.”

At holiday parties and events, it is especially important to stay in the moment. Don’t let your feelings of dread, anxiety, or anger take over. You are responsible for and are in control of your thoughts, and with a little effort and practice, you will find that it’s easy to be serene and even lighthearted in situations that may have once made you uncomfortable.

Use the Law of Attraction to create joyful experiences. (A.k.a. “Acting as if.”) Every morning when you wake up, the ball is in your court in regards to how you want to spend your day. If you exude bitterness, anger, or self-pity, then you can’t really expect others around you to feed you good cheer by the spoonful. Remember the law of the universe: Like attracts like. This is a very valuable lesson that is easy to apply to the holidays, says Apollon. Even if you don’t necessarily feel charitable or joyful, put a smile on your face and intend to feel better and you might surprise yourself by actually feeling better. (Or as some self-help gurus like to say, “Fake it till you make it.”)

“If you would like to bury the proverbial hatchet with family members or friends you know will be around during the holiday season, make a conscious choice to surround those people with love,” she advises. “By being the bigger person and greeting them with a heartfelt, ‘Happy Holidays!’ followed by, ‘I’m so glad to see you!’ you can set the tone for the holidays, as well as change your energy and the energy of those around you. Don’t wait for someone else to take the initiative—sometimes you just have to take the lead.”

Take care of yourself. You’ll look and feel better. Make sure that you get enough sleep to survive all the events that will be coming your way this time of year, advises Apollon. Eat well so your body will stay strong. Avoid the urge to overeat at parties—you will just feel sluggish and cranky afterward. Spend some time each day alone and quiet to help you regain your inner balance. And try to find time to exercise each day, even if it is just a ten-minute walk or some gentle stretching in the mornings. Oh, and a flattering new holiday outfit wouldn’t hurt, either.

“When you take the time to look your best, you will feel your best,” says Apollon. “That means allowing enough time before the party to apply your make-up, fix your hair, and find the perfect accessories for your new little black dress. As all women know, sometimes a new outfit or a new hairstyle is worth more than a month of therapy!”

Manage your expectations. Remember that the holidays almost never turn out like a Norman Rockwell painting or a sepia-toned greeting card. It is important that you accept that the holidays probably won’t go off without a hitch. Still, this time of the year can be pretty darn great if you seek out loving feelings toward your friends and families. Happiness can come only from embracing unconditional love as often as possible. If you work toward finding the love in every situation, you will be delighted to find how much joy the holidays really can hold.

“Around Christmastime and Hanukkah, it is important to remember that everyone is seeking peace—this quest is universal,” concludes Apollon. “If you allow the season to be polluted with anxiety and sorrow, you are actively disconnecting from the exquisite peace the holidays offer. Make a real effort this season to focus on loving feelings. Follow the love you feel. It will lead you away from painful memories and fears that cloud your day-to-day existence. Find the unconditional love that has survived in your heart, and you will be amazed at the new and joyful places it will lead you.”