December 22, 2017

Dear ready-for-the-holidays-to-be-over readers,

My business is usually brisk in December and January. December clients talk about things like the dreaded upcoming family gathering which creepy Uncle Virgil never misses. Or the internal list of holiday expectations that can never be met. Or the gap between the December of Christmas cards and the one that plays out more like a Griswold family experience.

January clients come in for trauma therapy, having just experienced December.

Here are three things I’ve previously written for people for whom the phrase “Happy Holidays” seems oxymoronic—because their holidays never were.

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 year or so. 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 passing 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 defocus 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. But 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. Here’s an example of holiday relational stress that stems from 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, drunk 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—they 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.

Shooting for That Norman Rockwell Christmas

A few days before Christmas, you pack up your car and deliver presents to six of your friends.  By the time your visits are completed, you’ve observed the following six things: well-mannered children, stylish holiday attire, pleasant in-laws, impeccably decorated 14-foot trees with all the lights working, perfectly wrapped presents, and outside decorations that make the evening news.

As you pull back into your driveway, you notice that ladder still laying in the front yard—the one you’ll use to hang partially working lights on broken gutters. Your kids are running wild, no presents have been wrapped, your Thanksgiving decorations are still up, and you’re praying that the in-laws will cancel their holiday visit—something that’s never happened before.

Are you stressed out by the gap separating what you think the holidays should be and what they actually are? If so, you have a large peer group. In fact, unreachable, unrealistic expectations wreck the spirits of many holiday revelers. So, how can you keep this from happening?

First, keep in mind that most people are so focused on meeting their own expectations that they’re too preoccupied to notice when you don’t meet yours. In short, few people care or notice when your decorations go up, how many lights burn on your tree, or how fluffy the bows are on your presents.

Second, stay focused on what’s important.  You’ll enjoy the holidays more by celebrating their significance than you will by attempting the impossible—living up to your unreachable expectations.

I hope these are some helpful perspectives. May your formerly unhappy holidays be a little happier this year.

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