December 14, 2018

Dear Holiday Drama Observers,

People have always asked me if my business—the shrink business, that is—slows down around the holidays. Actually, something closer to the opposite is true. If the holiday feelings of some of my clients could be put to music, they might come out sounding less like “Jingle Bells” and more like the old Hee Haw tune, “Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me.”

Which reminds me… Years ago, Saturday Night Live did one of those spoof commercials entitled “A Dysfunctional Family Christmas” in which cast members, all gussied up in their Christmas sweaters and drinking eggnog around a fireplace, sang tunes as the song titles scrolled past on the screen. Songs such as, “Can’t You Let It Drop? It’s Christmas,” “Let’s Pretend We Like Each Other (This Christmas),” and “Fruitcake and Shame.” The commercial ended with a call-in number scrolling by, 1-800-GET-HELP.

It was a funny skit, but it captured well the let’s-get-it-over-with sentiments of so many people. A few years ago, I wrote some short articles about the emotional challenges presented by the holidays. I’ve included two of them below.

Managing Holiday Expectations

A lot of people have rigid notions about what holidays are supposed to entail.  They grew up beholden to certain traditions that now seem terribly difficult to break.  And for some people, if it was done once it became a “tradition.”  Consequently, there are a lot of internalized “shoulds” that manifest themselves as rigid rules governing what needs to happen during the holidays.  But rigidity usually leads to misery, so for the holidays to be joyful, flexibility is required.  Here are four suggestions for flexibility:

First, deliberately leave something out.  Take a tradition or two and give them a hiatus to be brought back in a few years.  Traditions are fun and are usually meaningful but voluntary customs are always more enjoyable than ones that are obligatory.

Second, try to avoid the typical holiday tendency to approach things in an all-or-none manner.  A lot of people have unattainable expectations that only produce frustration when left unmet.  But it’s more manageable if you adjust those expectations on the front end.  Shoot for a 90 on your holiday test instead of a 100.  It’s still a good grade and you’ll be more relaxed.

Speaking of relaxation, plan some times to simply relax and get off the holiday treadmill.  Watch some movies, take time to reflect, go ice-skating, get away from the crowds, or do whatever would help you redirect your focus from the expectations screaming at you.  It won’t be easy, but it will be worth the effort.

Finally, say no to some requests.  Many people get invited to things that only occur once a year, and it can be quite daunting if you get more requests than can be reasonably handled. Each situation has its own relational expectations, so this may not be easy.  You may have to decide between your sanity and perfect attendance.

When Your Holidays Weren’t So Happy

Many of us feel tension during the holidays and it seems that much of that anxiety comes from relationships. Specifically, let’s look at holiday comparisons.

Wendy didn’t say much when her friends reminisced about their wonderful holiday memories.  They told tales of grandfathers reading stories, moms making special cookies, and dads dressed up like Santa… And happy kids.  Not wanting to throw cold water on warm memories, Wendy stayed silent. That’s because her experiences weren’t like those of the others. Tucked away in her memory banks were recollections of broken dishes, drunken uncles, and screaming parents. Home felt like a minefield where the smallest of missteps could blow off a foot.  Wendy’s background was dark and miserable, not happy.  So, when her friends recounted their warm holiday memories, she was struck by the stark contrast with her own.  And the comparison left her feeling stressed.

Perhaps you come from a background like Wendy’s.  If so, you may not like the holidays and wish the calendar only had 10 months. You may find yourself comparing the dark reality of your own experiences with the marketing images of warm family gatherings, and the comparison wears you out.

While painful memories can’t be erased, they can be replaced. You can trade out memories of the past with new memories of pleasant experiences up here in the present.  It helps to start your own traditions that will be remembered fondly. Do things you enjoy—the way you wish they had been done when you were little. Create your own memories of experiences that you and those around you will remember fondly in the years to come.

Till next week.