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  • Writer's pictureHelen Dempsey-Henofer

Know your mental traps

Admiral Ackbar's holiday survival guide.

Bells, singing, lights, revelry.

The winter season is filled with holiday traditions. You and I are part of a group of a wildly diverse group of lifeforms called human beings, each experiencing the season differently.

Thoughts of lights, parties, camaraderie and gift-giving may fill your heart with eager anticipation.

It's also possible that being surrounded by the antics of the season contribute to feeling painful feelings more sharply. Such seasonal difficulty may include:

  • Grief related to separation and loss

  • Isolation that frequently accompanies mental health challenges

  • Conflict with cultural expectations/traditions or family relationships

Whatever you're struggling with, pain is often felt more acutely during this season.

Or you might experience a "both... and..." situation (a foundational concept from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy you can see some examples of here), as you enjoy some of the holiday trappings while having not-so-pleasant feelings about others.

Where ever you fall on this continuum, between being blissed-out and loving each moment or wishing for a remote with a fast-forward-let's-skip-ahead-to-Spring button, those are valid experiences. Check in with yourself. Check in with your friends. Ask: What do you need? It is comfort? Rest? To live it up at a party? There's no wrong answer to this.

Sometimes, rather than paying attention to what would support us, we get sucked in to unhelpful holiday thought traps. Those thoughts that, when you start engaging with them, compound your struggles.

What's up with the alien? If you're not a Star Wars fan, the above character is Admiral Ackbar. In the 1983 Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi, during the Battle of Endor, Admiral Ackbar announces "It's a trap!" when his rebel alliance squadron is ambushed by imperial ships.

How is this relevant? Chances are, in the expanse of your mind, there are some traps.

Some common thought traps you might experience:

  • "I want to do exactly the right thing" (and not knowing what it is keeps you frozen)

  • "I'm a bad friend/partner/colleague if I don't..."

  • Making comparisons

  • "I should be able to..."

  • "If only..."

The first step in releasing yourself from your holiday thought traps, before you make values-aligned choices, is to recognize them. Make yourself a list: what thoughts do I get stuck on when they show up? Then, when you notice them, you might imagine Admiral Ackbar (or another favorite character), "It's a trap!"

When trapped in your thoughts, as happens in analysis paralysis and shame-spirals, you're likely out of contact with what matters most. Wondering if our thoughts are "right" is one way people often stay stuck, but I invite you to notice the impact. What is happening while you're stuck? This brings us back to the concept of workability. How workable is it to dwell on whether your thought is correct? To get out of the trap, get clear on what matters and take action. Remember, resting is action. If the most important thing right now is kindness, you might engage in kindness by allowing yourself to rest.

Does taking action on what matters most mean that you won't have unpleasant thoughts or feelings? No. It also doesn't mean you won't make uncomfortable choices. Sometimes you chose to go to that too-loud holiday party to prioritize connecting with your friends (you might first come up with a contingency plan for limiting over-stimulation). Choosing the more challenging option because it matters to you is one choice you can make. You can also choose to stay home and rest, showing yourself some compassion. There's not a right or wrong set of guiding values. Check in with yourself and ask, what do I need? You can choose to act, in the moment you're in, on what connects you with what matters most to you (your personal values).

If you notice your mind pushing back on this, But when I'm trapped, I'm trapped and I can't get out! that's okay. It can take time to build skills to respond when you're being pushed around by difficult thoughts and feelings. Even if you're having thoughts of resistance, I invite you to practicing noticing your thoughts/traps, and seeing if you can pause and take intentional action. Consider this experiment a free gift you can give yourself.

Reading an article isn't therapy. While not a substitution for the individual care of mental health treatment, this blog is intended to put therapy concepts into writing so that they can be accessed more widely. If you know someone who'd benefit, forward this on to them. There are two ways to sign up, a consent checkbox for new clients in intake, or easy-peasy from the website... available for anyone.


I talked about the continuum of holiday experiences between embracing the season and depletion/avoidance. My own experience is a little of both. Sometimes I bump into triggers that bring up grief, anxiety, and self-questioning. This therapist is also a messy human being. Some years & holiday seasons come with more challenging thoughts and emotions.

I've been fortunate recently to experience an abundance of awe and appreciation. With my clients, I deeply appreciate and feel honored to be alongside them (alongside you if you're reading this and are also a client) for a part of their journey. With friends and family, my heart is filled by seeing them engage in the things they love. Many of my friends are artists and musicians and showing up when they share their passion in public venues is something I sometimes give ginormous "AWWWW YESSS!" energy to. Sometimes.

I'm continuing to work on noticing my own mental traps, pausing, and choosing how to respond. I find it helpful to have outside perspective and appreciate my own therapy/therapist for their feedback and space to process. If you are interested in starting therapy and think we may be a good fit, my practice is currently accepting new clients. Use the website schedule a free consultation.

Where ever you are in the continuum of holiday experiences, I encourage you to ask, "what do I need right now?"

If you can imagine "the force" as connecting with what matters (your personal values), May the force be with you (and Happy Holidays to those who celebrate).

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