‘Shoulds,’ Mindfulness, and the Holidays

xmascardThe winter holidays are after a time of great joy—and stress, too. I use “winter holidays” to include Christmas, New Year’s, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa. Regardless of your religion, though, in the United States you are going to be immersed in the commercial onslaught of Christmas. Some people love this, some hate it, and very few remain impartial. Regardless of your position, we are all going to be bombarded with the message that this year should be the best, most sparkly, and most magical winter holiday. It’s almost enough to get lost in.

There are always so many things we “should” be doing to be good parents, children, friends, co-workers, students, aunts or uncles, grandparents, and lovers. It’s a sneaky way that companies get us to buy the things they’re selling—if we buy them, we will be good. This “should,” however, is tricky. “Shoulds” in general are a red flag, a time to take a deep breath, step back, and examine what’s going on a little more closely. “Shoulds” are never from inside us; they are always messages that come from outside. The “should” might be the voice of a parent, a person you admire, a celebrity, or a person you love.

For example, let’s say you are feeling stressed out and tired but know you “should” be writing Christmas cards. When you hear that “should,” it’s a great to time explore what’s really going on. Maybe your mom always wrote Christmas cards and you feel like you would disappoint her if you don’t. Or maybe you noticed that your best friend did them this year and you don’t want anyone to think you’re lazy, so you “should” be doing them, too. In both of these scenarios, there’s a lot more going on than just Christmas cards. And both are fueled by outside sources. An example of an inside source might be thinking to yourself, “Oh, good, I have a few minutes to write my Christmas cards. I love getting a chance each year to share what’s going on with me with my friends and family.”

It’s also amazing how these “shoulds” can be so intertwined with our identities. We each have an idea of what we want our identity to be, how we want others to see us. What if you’re the friend who doesn’t send Christmas cards? What does that mean about you? Could that be OK? These are the kinds of questions we can ask ourselves when we want to slow down and explore what’s really going on behind the stress and worry.

One way to approach these “shoulds,” our identity, and the holiday season differently is from a mindfulness perspective. Mindfulness, which comes from Buddhism, invites us to focus on what’s going on right now, in this moment. Often, our moments are filled with the past and future. Stress and worry are almost always connected to something that could possibly happen—not what is actually happening right now.

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  • Jane

    December 25th, 2012 at 11:41 AM

    While it would be great to do only the things that our mind wants us to and to be completely isolated from external “shoulds”,it is not practical.But then again,doing everything that external forces compel you to is to a great thing either.So what should be done?

    For me,a middle path is what I look to follow.There are times when I may not be in the mood to do something but I do it anyway to make my loved ones happy.But that in turn gives me happiness too.SO I do whatever I can without burdening myself with compulsion.That is where I draw the line.

  • Terri b

    December 26th, 2012 at 6:50 AM

    I always get so overwhelmed this time of year thinking of all of the things that I need to be doing and the people that I need to make time for and see. . . but then I feel as I somehow get lost in the shuffle of what I should do and need to do!
    Maybe next year I can take this message of midfulness and do something better with it as this year is already a wash and I have seriosuly wasted it on what I feel like I should do!
    Next year I pray to have the strength to do more of what I want to do, and hopefully will enjoy the holidays a little more than I have in the past.

  • josie

    December 26th, 2012 at 9:19 AM

    its not just in the us. me and my family are with my husband who is stationed in germany there is so much christmas stuff over here. not so many lights and stuff but the hole town is decked out.
    definitely pressure on this side of the pond too i felt like my kids had to have just the right stuf to blend in with there school.
    but i didn’t now what just the right stuff was lol!

  • Jedediah

    December 26th, 2012 at 9:20 AM

    Only one thing to say on this subject: don’t should on yourself!!

  • michael.k

    December 26th, 2012 at 10:55 AM

    problem with me is that I cannot say no to people close to me.so whether it is putting off something of my own to contribute to the never-ending preparations for festivities or foregoing sleep,it is always a yes from me.guess I need to overcome this drawback of mine.I need to step back and look if a certain action is indeed required (instead of being just wanted) and only then act upon it.

    it is nice to do things for family but I guess it should not be at the cost of overwhelming yourself!

  • Clarke

    December 26th, 2012 at 6:52 PM

    I guess I’m lucky to have a family that doesn’t reinforce any “shoulds” upon me,including during the holiday season.

    They know and I know that even if we do not send each other Christmas cards or even wish each other, we still love each other and that displaying your love in need is far more important than symbolically putting it on a card.

    Friends may not be that understanding but honestly I just do what I want to do. Having no hard feelings or expectations from others helps too. No complaints from my end so others do not feel the need to complain either. I see people hurrying and putting themselves under so much stress that what I do just feels good.

  • christina

    December 26th, 2012 at 11:44 PM

    oh mindfulness is such a gem of a habit to have.not only does it help you in stressful times where so many shoulds corner you but also let’s you see that life is very different from what most people think of it as.it has helped me realize that human needs are few and that most things are nothing more than a gimmick.helps me tag connected to those around me and protects me from any of the should conditions.

  • Claire Porter

    December 27th, 2012 at 4:16 AM

    I have never fed into that pressure to be everything to everyone and to have that ideal perfect Christmas.

    I think that this is because my parents always always stressed to us that the material things that go along with Christmas are not at all what Christmas is all about.

    They always did a very good job making sure that we knew that this was about more than gifts under the tree but about the gift given to us from GOd and the specialness of spending this time with friends and family.

  • layla

    December 28th, 2012 at 1:12 PM

    There is no real big SHOULD to the holidays other than you should find a way to enjoy yourself and feel blessed for having another year.

  • rosa

    December 28th, 2012 at 3:48 PM

    I hate being told what to do.So if it is a mental “should” it can really frustrate me.All of this shopping madness makes me feel like people are blind folded to not see the truth.

    I kick back,relax,and still do what is needed for the holidays.I just don’t follow what’s told,I do what’s right,and that is to spend quality time with family while relishing each moment and not having to worry if I gave the best gift.


    December 28th, 2012 at 11:17 PM

    While it can be tough to stay away from all this, I believe not giving in isn’t that hard either. We spread and are affected by the commercial onslaught whenever we discuss, plan or act upon things related to it, like buying things that we don’t need, ‘upgrading’ a gift gradually until the money you ended up spending is twice what you had initially planned. these are excesses that can be avoided.

    but that can happen only if we stop measuring our self worth from what we gift and what we buy.it needs to be measured by how good a person we are,whether we helped those in need and not just those around us,whether we are following the message that christmas brings.if we can stick to that it is not impossible to overcome the commercial onslaught.

  • april p

    December 29th, 2012 at 4:19 AM



  • M Sclat

    December 29th, 2012 at 12:56 PM

    april p, let me know how it goes! I have tried to do that before and I always cave in. I think it takes a strong person to really live his or her own truth rather than the truth as perceived by other people. I wish you all the best on your endeavor. Keep us posted!

  • Jan

    December 29th, 2012 at 12:58 PM

    M Sclat and april p there is only one way to live your life adn that is how God wants you to live it. but you are right that it doesn’t matter what other people think of it. only God. Turn to Him and you will find all the love and guidance you need good luck.

  • A Albert

    December 29th, 2012 at 1:01 PM

    Man did I deal with a lot of ‘shoulds’ this Christmas! Everything was all different. For one, I had a kid last February. So did my sister. Then my brother couldn’t come home b/c he was too far away. We always have Christmas dinner at his house, so that was different too. It felt like everything we always do we should be doing so I didn’t really enjoy the holiday season too much this year. I am really hoping things may be a little bit more back to normal next year. otherwise, I’ll have to read this again about ten times starting in the middle of November!!!!!!!

  • betty

    December 29th, 2012 at 2:29 PM

    while I do realize that going overboard is not wise,I don’t really hate the commercial aspect of the holidays.we all gift each other something,there is nothing wrong in that.going overboard is not a nice thing,just as in anything.there will always be people that go overboard and those that will not.it holds good for anything not just shopping.

    it wouldn’t be right to blame the commercial aspect for this.but I do agree that one should not let external agents tweak their thinking.if that happens you are losing control.doing anything with a firm control over your thoughts would be the way to go.

  • kim

    December 30th, 2012 at 10:37 AM

    The best thing to do when you find yourself stuck in all the things you “should” be doing is to concentrate on the things in life that are the most important to you and how to express their importance to others. This does not have to be about buying and giving the biggest gifts or about having the best dinner, but mainly to just enjoy all of the elements of the Christmas and express that to the ones you love. That’s it. I know that when I step back from all of the buying and the get togethers, the things that are the most important to me are my family members and that’s what I choose to focus on and appreciate. When I do that, that is when I am my happiest.


    December 30th, 2012 at 3:50 PM

    I’ve heard so much about mindfulness..a friend of mine says it has helped him control his anger, reflect upon the really important things and many other benefits.

    As for me,I do get stuck in the “shoulds” every now and then.Although I have been meaning to start practicing mindfulness for quite sometime now,I haven’t been able to.The recent Christmas “shoulds” have been a motivator and I definitely plan to practice it very soon.

  • damien

    December 31st, 2012 at 1:38 PM

    no matter what you gift, what you do, or how much effort you put in, there will always be critics and things will never be ‘perfect’. its cruel to be doing that to yourself just to please others. think of the wonderful things you can do without actually putting yourself under too much pressure. things can be quite things can be peaceful, it need not always be razzmatazz.

  • Tess

    December 31st, 2012 at 10:41 PM

    @damien:You are right, damien! Its like there is just no limit to being good or perfect.The heights are just unreachable.In fact the more we try to achieve it the farther we find ourselves from it.

    @Author:Thank you for this post.Really feels like something that could help me because so often I find myself under so much stress because I just tend to try and make everybody happy that I end up making myself unhappy.

  • sonia t

    January 2nd, 2013 at 3:56 AM

    Personally I am so glad that the holidays are over for almost another year!
    I know that it is terrible to admit but this time of year stresses me to no end, and I know that this is what I let happen. But it really does suck the enjoyment of the season right out of it for me!

  • Damon Constantinides

    January 4th, 2013 at 10:12 AM

    Although this blog was originally written for the holidays, I’m curious if people are finding it helpful even now that they are over. Are there ways that we carry the anxiety of “shoulds” into our daily life? And how do we hold onto the joyous moments of the holidays, but let go of the stress?

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