Guilt, Obligation, and the Holidays

by Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Emotional Well-being

I’m one of four siblings, we all have children, and my mother celebrates her birthday within days of Christmas. So stress, guilt, obligation, uncomfortable familial patterns, and financial pressure were as much a part of our winter holidays as the joy of being together. I’ve had my share of holiday interactions that were based far more on tribal guilt and a sense of obligation than peace and good will towards men (and women). Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, I’m sure there is a special holiday, wedding, or annual family reunion that springs to mind when you read this. And I hope you will relate to what I’m about to share. At a time when I just wanted to relax and go within, I found myself feeling overwhelmed, obligated, and worthy of blame. And this grew with each passing year, until recently.

The massive cultural build up of expectations that the holidays will be a time when families all get together and all past wounds are healed (think Scrooge in The Christmas Carol), leads to incredibly unrealistic ideas about what you owe your family or loved ones during the holidays. Add to that the fact that many families are now blended (half brothers and sisters, divorced parents, in-laws, and so forth) and you have a recipe for health-eroding guilt and obligation. For example, having to visit several sets of relatives on Christmas day in order to “please” everyone, even though you’d much rather stay home and simply enjoy the day, creates tremendous stress.

The pressure to create the perfect holiday can be enormous—especially for women. There is also the desire to make family members and guests feel welcome and happy, often at great personal expense. When my children were little and on into their teenage years, I had recurrent dreams that it was Christmas Eve and I hadn’t done any shopping yet. At that time I was working 60-80 hours per week and had almost no time to take care of myself, let alone create storybook holidays. Although I know that Christmas morning was a time when the house was overflowing with abundance, I would be in a frenzy leading up to the big day. I wanted to make up for my absence during the year and to assuage my guilt about it.

The reason that the holidays are so difficult for so many is because very few of us have escaped at least one of the major childhood wounds: betrayal, shame, and abandonment. Some have experienced all three! As Mario Martinez, Ph.D., founder of the Biocognitive Science Institute explains, these wounds become entangled with love until it’s hard to separate love from abuse. For example, if you were betrayed as a child by a relative who should have loved and protected you, then as an adult, you may have difficulty separating love from abuse.

An acquaintance of mine was physically abused as a child. One day her behavior with me was so irritating that I began to yell at her—something I had never done in my life. She began to cry and said, “Now I know you love me.” It was the first time that I truly understood how closely love and wounding can be intertwined. By lashing out at her verbally—which happened all the time in her family—I was re-creating a pattern to which she could relate.

Dr. Martinez points out that the way to untangle childhood wounding is by practicing the behavior and emotions that are the antidotes to the wounding. So, for example, the antidote for shame is honor. Honoring yourself or behaving honorably by standing up for others is the opposite of feeling ashamed and not worthy of love and support. Brene Brown points out that the key characteristic of shame-resilient people is that they believe they are worthy of love. So I encourage you to follow Dr. Martinez’s advice: To move past shame, think of a time when you felt honored and respected. And bring this memory to mind each and every time you feel shame.

Guilt comes from the belief that you’re not doing enough. And the whole reason you think you’re not doing enough is because you’ve been led to believe that your presence, your being, is not enough. When you feel unworthy of love and acceptance, then you can’t buy enough or do enough for others to fill in the emptiness.

Obligation also springs from the feeling of unworthiness. As Anne Wilson Schaef says, “Workaholism is the addiction of choice in those who feel unworthy.” When I felt guilty for being away from home so much when my kids were little, I overshot by buying too much! This was the only way I knew to make up for my absence and my guilt about it, although I didn’t fully understand that at the time.

If you are in a situation this holiday season in which you are being shamed, such as your mother criticizing your lifestyle (or hairstyle), this may open up a wound in the small child you once were—the child who simply wanted her mother’s unconditional love. It takes courage and compassion for yourself to untangle and disassociate from these harmful patterns. One thing that helps me be more compassionate is to remember that most parents (and family members) have simply passed their own unhealed wounds down to us. It doesn’t mean they are right. And it doesn’t give them permission to continue. But it may help you handle the situation with grace.

Some time ago, I had a frank discussion with my children about gift giving. And we all agreed to halt the practice entirely. They were as relieved as I was. Instead, we make each other’s birthdays a big deal. And at Christmas, we create a slideshow of the prior year and have a game of “Yankee Swap,” for which we each buy a gift for under $20. (We then draw numbers, and the person with #1 picks a gift. Then all the ensuing players can either keep the gift they pick OR take the gift that someone else has already opened.) It’s absolutely hilarious! My house is always filled with guests who are close friends and who add to the fun. We then enjoy a meal together and all go see a holiday movie. It’s a most wonderful day, one in which there is rest, laughter, and good food. We feel grateful to be a family (both blood and chosen) and to have shared another year with one another.

Let’s all do what we can to move from survival to joy this season. Yes—the surprise of Christmas morning with little ones is delightful. And so is finding the perfect gift for a loved one. But when this becomes an obligation, not a joy, it’s time to question the program.

p.s. Oftentimes, the same people who criticize or shame us have very little tolerance for what Martinez calls the “exalted” emotions of joy and happiness. Hence, after a certain amount of good cheer, people with unhealed wounds simply cannot tolerate any more happiness and love, and they will become critical, pick a fight, or whatever. It is at that point that you must detach, leave, and, hardest of all, simply ALLOW the family member to be angry for as long as he or she needs, until you are no longer the target of their hostility. It’s your job to protect your own heart and to become shame resilient and impervious to manipulation through guilt or obligation. It takes time, but is worth it—trust me!

Last Updated: December 3, 2013

Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Christiane Northrup, M.D., is a visionary pioneer and a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness. Recognizing the unity of body, mind, and spirit, she empowers women to trust their inner wisdom, their connection with Source, and their ability to truly flourish.

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  1. Analiese
    8 months ago

    I called in earlier to Dr Northrup’s radio show and talked about my experience as a young adult dealing with narcissistic abuse in the family. She asked me how I handle the holidays, and I gave a brief answer because I wasn’t totally prepared for that question, and with the adrenaline pumping I was hesitant to say on the radio that I spent a couple holidays alone, but I want to give the honest and practical answer to encourage those who are navigating these same waters—especially since the holidays are coming up.

    Last thanksgiving, I chose not to participate in the family dinner. Instead, I declined the invitation and said that I had other plans, and I arranged this for myself: I cooked myself a gorgeous dinner, journaled about what I was going through, and treated it as a ceremony: a tribute to my self-respect and an invocation to the new life I was calling in. Did I feel a little self-pity and bitterness at the time? A little. But now, a year later, it’s actually a beautiful memory and gives me a good feeling in my heart. I decided to disengage from the engagements that didn’t feel good to me, in order to make space for what I truly wanted—how I wanted my holidays to be and the kinds of people I wanted to be surrounded by. This year, I am making plans with just a few friends to do an alternative vegan thanksgiving, which I hope becomes a new tradition for us.

    I also didn’t go to mother’s day dinner this year. I just so happened to be starting a new job the next day, so that conveniently gave me an excuse. But either way, I had decided weeks in advance that I didn’t want to go this year. It can be scary and hard when you don’t have an excuse and want to decline, but just practice saying no. Just do it. Sometimes convenient excuses will come up, and other times when they don’t it will just make you stronger and more in touch with what actually works for you.

    I have also said no on a number of other occasions, and continue to do so. I try to feel into my body when I think about going to the event and seeing the people in order to help me decide whether to go. At first saying “No thanks” was scary because it’s so “beyond the pale,” but looking back I have no regrets; it has only bolstered my self-respect and made me stronger. It’s easier now, because unlike in the past, my presence at every event is no longer expected or taken for granted, and I feel the freedom to be able to choose whether I decide to attend or not (after years of going back and forth to both parents’ houses, packing my stuff and splitting holidays, plus donating my time to be at every family event and being so pleasant and loyal to all extended family members, even ones who were nasty people. So done with that.). Additionally, after healing from draining relationships, I can and do fully appreciate and enjoy my own company, because I’m connected to source & have become my own wellspring of contentment.

    I just wanted to post this here for anyone who is anxious about upcoming holidays as a piece of support. I hope that whoever needs to see this sees it! I also think it would be really awesome for Dr. Northrup to do another show about navigating the holidays with energy vampire relationships.

    1. Sharon Henderson
      6 months ago

      Happy Holidays 2U! I’ve spent many Holidays ALONE, my choice, no one really questions me anymore. I too enjoy my own company and because from Halloween to New Year’s Eve is my busiest season, I DON’T have time to people please. God Bless U!

  2. pat
    5 years ago

    I tell myself, and told the well-meaning librarian who asked me was my shopping all done (does this look like the mall?) is this: Christmas is one day. ONE DAY. Not a season.
    Winter is a season.
    A time to work under full spectrum lights, appreciate the quiet along the sea wall midday, and pile up books for the long Silent Night.
    I wish you all the gifts of comfort and joy~~Peace on Earth, Goodwill Towards Women~~
    and on the way outta Dodge, let heaven and nature SING !

  3. Amparo
    5 years ago

    Dear Chris, I am a 30-year-old Spanish reader of your book “Women’s Bodies…”, that I really love. It contains so much information that I appreciate very much the hard work you surely did for this book.
    This brilliant article has helped me a lot about my guilty and sad feelings toward these days (In Spain, these holidays are longer and more familiar than in the US), and I am very grateful for that . I wish you all the best.

  4. Christiane Northrup
    5 years ago

    It has been so so very fulfilling to read through your comments here. You know the old saying ” When you know better, you do better? Well, now we all know better. And we’ve been immunized against guilt mongering. So when it rears its head, we can protect our hearts and “get outta Dodge!!”

  5. Laura DiMinno
    5 years ago

    You are spot on. Thank you.

  6. Karla M
    5 years ago

    In a weird twist, it’s my husband’s sisters who make any gathering confrontational and stressful. Both sets of our parents are deceased, so my husband & I are the “elders.” This year was the 1st Thanksgiving they weren’t part of our day, and it was the best Thanksgiving we’ve had since we got married. We stopped going to the extended family Christmas a few years ago.

  7. Laura Brownwood
    5 years ago

    Until my first born was ten years old, we didn’t exchange or give presents, we would spend our Christmas eve and Christmas morning at nursing homes, singing to them and listening to their stories. My children (40 and 37 now) grew up learning how to give AND LOVED IT. Although now we do give each other a present, it is ONLY if we find something that we want to give, not because we have to. Love the plan you have devised Christiane. Let’s live for real !!

  8. Dena
    5 years ago

    Wow! So true, always get the abuse from one person in particular after everyone else is having a good time. This year decided that I am not even going to bother with accepting that behaviour and protecting my own heart.

  9. Barbara
    5 years ago

    What a truly wonderful way to actually relax & enjoy this magical time of year. I have said over & over again for the past several years I would love to stop the “obligated” gift giving & just enjoy being with our loved ones & sharing the day together. To me that is truly the meaning of Christmas. Thank you again for your words of wisdom – I really look forward to your newsletters. Merry Christmas to you & your family!!!

  10. sandy
    5 years ago

    I am not responsible for everyone else’s emotions. Thank you Beth! After spending Thanksgiving walking on eggshells I will vow just to be happy for Christmas no matter how everyone else is acting.

  11. gylsie
    5 years ago

    hi dr. northrup, i am based in australia. I’m a female. i would like to ask whats the best potent multivitamin i can take and i can buy from here?? any thoughts?? thank u! gylsie – gelcantoni@yahoo.com

  12. Janet Bertolus
    5 years ago

    Christiane, I love your work so much, your books have helped me navigate menopause, and the lectures I’ve attended over the years have made laugh and be proud to be a woman! I’ve been writing a lot about forgiveness lately, for others and ourselves, and I wrote a piece on Thanksgiving that applies to this article exactly, using humor of course!
    http://theobserversvoice.com/2013/11/27/hard-feelings-with-a-side-of-blame-an-american-thanksgiving/
    Many blessings!

  13. rebecca wissink
    5 years ago

    thank you so much; I really needed this message. My Christmas Angst is already starting. I am going to re-post this onto my own blog while I work on the article I am going to write about Christmas.

  14. Kimberly
    5 years ago

    Blessings to you & your family! This was such an appropriate message for me.. As this year I have chosen to make some new traditions within my family, because I was sensing that overwhelming feeling of guilt & obligation with this gift-giving season. I am ready to feel good this season and this article has helped validate the reasons for choices I’ve made this year. Thank you again.

  15. A
    5 years ago

    When I started reading your blog, I didn’t think it applied to me — until the end when you talk about people with unhealed wounds who cannot take very much happiness or love. I experienced that recently with my stepmother. Instead of a warm welcome, I was continuously attacked about anything and everything. I was stunned and devastated. I now know where this is coming from and will never put myself in the position of not being able to leave again.

  16. Zena
    5 years ago

    Oh, boy! That’s exactly it! That’s what happened, so many times from the same people. Thank you Christiane for giving me the key to the solutions using my own understanding and grace I can protect myself and heal without creating any more pain. Your work turns my life onto bliss x

  17. Beth
    5 years ago

    I wish I had read these words years ago! I am always trying to make everyone happy but it’s simply not possible! I think they’d be happier if I was happy anyways instead of walking on eggshells. Thanks for telling me that I’m not responsible for their emotions! I can’t believe I didn’t get that until now.

  18. Wendy
    5 years ago

    I also needed to read this today and at this exact moment…It is now abundantly clear that I have been trying to be the model citizen and do what I think everyone expects me to do and I have loved being the creative, nurturing spirit that my inner wisdom guides me to be, however, I cannot continue to take the overwhelming negativity my husbands family exudes….I have felt this and have known it for years…this Christmas will be a challenge for sure…

  19. Lori Evanson
    5 years ago

    Thanks for this. Such wonderful suggestions. Wishing you and your family very Happy Holdays filled with many blessings!

  20. P
    5 years ago

    Such a timely and loving message. Thank you

  21. Niki Flow
    5 years ago

    This is a beautiful article and it has helped me so much. I especially love the idea of taking the bad feelings (like shame) and turning them around (into honor for example) to instantly change my emotions and feelings. I love the worlds “honor” and “respect” and cherish them when someone writes or says those about me. My friend recently put something on my Facebook page that I read over and over to believe: “You…are…enough.” Thank you Dr. Northrup.

  22. Dar Baez
    5 years ago

    What great ideas for Christmas I’m destressing already! Thank You!

  23. Martha
    5 years ago

    Celebrating Birthdays instead of Christmas is a great ideas unless you are adopted. Adopted persons, in my experience, are not fond of birthdays. Birthdays are reminders of their primal wound.

  24. Cathy
    5 years ago

    I needed to read this today.
    I pray for the courage to alter the mindless gift-giving that happens in our family. Part of the issue is my husband’s guilt-driven need to buy and make everyone happy. He calls me a Scrooge when I try to keep it simple.
    I love the idea of just playing games with the people you choose to be with – sounds perfect, actually.
    Many blessing to you & your daughters; you’ve each blessed me with much this year. With Love & Gratitude.

  25. Patty Kogutek
    5 years ago

    Thanks for this wonderful article giving us the reasons “why” we feel the guilt, pain, and stress of this beautiful season, putting everything in perspective. I would love to participate in your new family tradition. Thanks for the “permission” to move a meaningful way to celebrate this magical season.

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