In an ideal world, the festive season is supposed to be a time of joy, love and family, but for far too many people this is when they grapple with loneliness and anxiety.
By: Anele Siswana
The festive season takes place within the phase of advent, a period that marks four Sundays and weeks before Christmas (or sometimes from the 1st December to Christmas Day!).
In a perfect world people see this season as one that is filled with love, warmth, and happiness. However, often it is crammed with stress, exhaustion and anxiety.
For some it may be an anticipated season of love, joy, gifts, laughs, dancing and endless parties, for others it’s a gloomy season that brings loneliness, sadness, depression, and anxiety.
Furthermore, the world has created a narrative which encourages over-spending during the festive season.
The festive season is considered a time for “doing the things that make the pots” – a time where many splurge, especially those who have received their 13th Cheque or performance bonuses at work.
However, when you flip the coin there are those on the far end of the spectrum that are struggling to afford the luxury of over-spending, traveling and over-indulging.
In the midst of this excitement we often forget about those on the other end of the spectrum, the people struggling against poverty, unemployment and social injustice, which often leads to anxiety during this season.
There are also other factors that may result in anxiety and loneliness during this season of love.
Here are a few:
Black Tax/Unreasonable demands
South Africa has some of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty in the world.
We live in times of minimum wage, where living expenses out-weigh income. This has potential implications for those who work and have an income, like an expectation from our families to contribute financially.
Most people can hardly draw a line between black tax and generosity, which is why many black people find themselves in situations that necessitate them to over-spend on family and friends (buy food, drinks, clothes etc.) during the festive season.
Black tax is an infamous term coined for people of colour that are required to share their salary with their family and sometimes their extended family.
Black tax may also be why some many find themselves crippled by unrealistic expectations from their families, friends and community members during the festive season, especially if they are deemed to be successful.
This is a popular trend; mostly aimed at Amagoduka (a xhosa term) – those who predominantly come home in December – and may have moved to big cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban in search of greener pastures.
The common narrative is that if you have moved to a big city, then you can automatically afford to splurge. As a result, some may enter into debt while trying to please family and friends or opt not to travel home during the festive season.
I think it’s now time to change the narrative by having these conversations and setting new boundaries especially during family gatherings. This is an ideal time of teaching our families and friends that the festive season does not mean that everyone can afford to spend beyond their means.
Loneliness, rejection & loss during the festive season
We also often assume that during the festive season everyone is generally surrounded by family and friends, but for some it is a surprising time of great loneliness.
Some do not get the time and luxury of being with their families and friends due to work commitments, long distances and lack of finances. Home may also be a place of despair and thus resulting in some avoiding family gatherings.
While home is meant to be a safe space and place of acceptance, for some individuals, like members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ+) community, this might not be the case.
Some members of the LGBTQ+ may use family gatherings as the perfect moment of ‘coming out’, with the hope that they will be loved, accepted and find a place of belonging. However, some may experience rejection and lack of support from their families.
I encourage families to use this time to embrace their diversity and differences and create a more inclusive environment for all family members.
There is also the sad reality that some people may have lost loved ones during the year – a parent, relative, child, friend or partner – and this may be their first time spending the festive season without their presence. For them, this can be a season filled with grief, sadness and loneliness.
I hope that those who would find themselves in this space find comfort and healing from Jesus – or whomever they pray to – who is the healer in every situation, or seek support from family and friends during this trying time.
I am also aware that during this season people travel long distances to be with their families and friends. However, the festive season is infamous for road accidents.
Many people do not reach their destinations due to reckless driving, speeding and drinking and driving. (According statistics in 2018 there were 1612 fatalities and 1286 car accidents during 2018/2019 festive season.)
This means that death and bereavement becomes a dark cloud for many families during this season. Instead of being merry, they will spend their time preparing for funerals, burying loved ones and grappling with their loss.
As much as it may be difficult, I encourage families and friends to remember that even in the midst of darkness and sadness; family gatherings can be a time to commemorate and celebrate the lives of the loved ones that are not more.
End of the year anxiety
This is also a time where many beat themselves up for failing to achieve certain goals they had for the year, including New Year’s resolutions, which may leave them with a sense of uncertainty about the upcoming year.
Success is one of the things we strive for as individuals and failure can be detrimental. Sometimes we have unreasonable expectations of ourselves and set unrealistic goals, which can trigger a lot of anxiety during this season.
I always encourage my clients and people to rethink their expectations of self and others.
Your goals are targets which should be achieved according to your plans and expectations – living life to please others can result in unbearable pressures that can set you up for failure.
My principle and attitude around success is to acknowledge that few people’s lives truly measure up to “movie standards”, therefore it’s important to shift our focus to all the great things we have achieved this year, even though they may appear to be small feats.
However, despite all the above mentioned, the festive season can be a great season of immense joy, love, happiness if we learn to unburden ourselves of the unrealistic expectations that it imposes.
My hope is that we realise that sometimes this can also be a dark season and try and have empathy for those who may be suffering during this time.
May those people who are suffering from grief, loneliness, depression or anxiety know that they are not alone during this time. In the wise words of spiritual master, Amit Ray, remember, “You are never alone. You are eternally connected with everyone.”
To seek professional help contact:
SADAG (The South African Depression and Anxiety Group) on: 0800 567 567
24hr Helpline: 0800 12 13 14
SMS 31393 (and they will call you back)
Lifeline – National Counselling
0861 322 322 (24 hours/ 7 days a week)
About Anele Siswana
Anele Siswana is a lecturer, clinical psychologist whose work is centered on African healing systems and non-conventional paradigms in psychology. He heals at multiple levels, where he incorporates both African epistemologies and western-euro ways of knowing (psych). This allows him to operate from a space of indigenous practices and epistemological justice. Siswana has been featured as a guest psychologist on multiple radio and TV shows. He is also an activist for the rights of the LGBTIQ+ community.