Perhaps nothing in our lives provides as much predictable ambivalence as the onset of the holidays. On one hand, we eagerly anticipate a break from our regular routines, time spent with extended family, and general overindulgence and merriment. On the other, we get anxious about (and sometimes even dread) breaking from our regular routine, spending time with extended family, and the consequences of general overindulgence and merriment.
The period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day seems to be one of the most challenging times for my clients (and most people I know), and also the time when most cancel appointments or take a break from therapy because there’s just too much to do. There seems to be a general approach of hunkering down, making it through, and dealing with the consequences in the new year. Odd that what professes to be a joyous time of year winds up being something we talk about “getting through” or “surviving.” But is it really so odd?
In general, the higher our expectations, the greater our chances of being disappointed. I think much of our holiday dread stems from fears of feeling hurt, disappointed, lonely, or sad at a time when the world seems to be telling us we should feel happy and loved. So how do we avoid some of the pitfalls of the holidays? How do we do more than just survive?
- Ignore the hype: From holiday music to commercials to every Hallmark holiday movie, we are bombarded with visions of what the holidays should be. Very rarely do our own holiday experiences match those versions. To celebrate the holidays, we do not need to give or receive the biggest, best, and most coveted gifts. We do not fail as parents if our children don’t get THE toy of the season. We are not unloved if our partners do not present us with expensive jewelry. If we are partnerless, rarely will our soul mate magically appear in time for New Year’s Eve. Define for yourself what makes your holiday meaningful, and focus on making your experience match your vision.
- Set realistic expectations: The pressure to create a perfect holiday experience can be overwhelming. There’s food to cook, presents to wrap, decorations to hang, trees to trim, cards to send, people to visit, parties to throw or attend, family to see—the list goes on. We get so busy with the doing of it all that we don’t always have time to actually enjoy it. Decide for yourself what you want to do, what you can reasonably do, and make peace with it. After years of trying and failing to get my cards out in a timely manner (and feeling guilty), I just accepted that they are going to be late. So, I’ve started calling them 12th-night cards. Not only does this give me a little extra breathing room to get them done well, but it sets my card apart from the deluge of cards arriving in the last weeks of December.
- Work out family arrangements well ahead of time: Some families are able to gather in one location, but the majority of families have to make choices about which side of the family to visit for each holiday. The guilt we feel for “disappointing” our parents, grandparents, or other relatives we don’t visit can dampen our holiday spirits. Sometimes we miss our families so much that we can resent our partners for “making” us spend holidays with their families. For divorced families, negotiating holiday visits can be particularly stressful. Deciding who “gets” the kids on Christmas morning or Thanksgiving Day has emotional implications far greater than just working out a schedule. Figure out the arrangements early, before the stress of the season is upon you. Also, get creative! Let go of the notion that one particular day is more meaningful than any other. Create your own holiday rituals that supersede the calendar. For many years, my family has celebrated my birthday when we gather for Christmas. It’s one of the few times of the year that we are all together, so despite the fact my birthday is actually weeks away, getting to have a birthday dinner with my family has been a meaningful way to mark the occasion.
- Try to see things with fresh eyes: So often we prepare ourselves to spend time with family expecting the usual conflicts to arise, the usual issues to be present, the usual dynamics to be at play. Think about what it would be like if you were seeing your family for the first time—with no baggage, no expectations, and no predetermined dynamics. What if you could hear a comment or see a behavior and not interpret it based on decades of interactions? What if you could see your parents through the lens of your adult eyes and not the adolescent that you once were? This can be hard; for many there’s great comfort in reverting to familiar roles, even when those are not the roles we play in our everyday lives. We do have the power to change things by changing the meaning we make of what we hear and see.
Most of these suggestions require letting go—of expectations, of judgment, and of past grievances. If you can manage that, you might very well have some happy holidays.
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