Years ago, I met up with a friend at a local coffee shop. As we settled into our chairs, we warmed ourselves up by holding onto our mugs filled with hot, caffeinated goodness. She started to open up first.
I sat there listening to this competent, successful and well-respected woman share a sense of dread over the upcoming holiday season. I remember feeling surprised, and if I’m honest, also a bit relieved.
You see, some of the questions she had about her role in her family, I had also been questioning about myself and my family. I remember thinking, “You mean I’m not the only one that feels this way?!”. After our discussion we both left the coffee shop that day feeling a little lighter. She told me as we were walking to our cars, “this year is going to be different”.
The holiday season can be a difficult time for people. Sometimes the hardships come in the form of grief because someone you love is not going to be seated at the dinner table. Sometimes it’s in the form of family conflict, ranging from dysfunctional to abusive. Sometimes stress comes from internal, external or societal pressure to somehow uphold old and unrealistic expectations. All these reasons, and many more, are completely valid – holidays, families and so on can be very difficult.
So, let’s explore some practical ways to do more than just survive this time of year and open ourselves up to the possibility of once again experiencing joy during the holiday season!
Realistic vs unrealistic expectations
Most people don’t recognize that they hold unrealistic expectations. In fact, as a therapist, I have sat with countless people who have questioned themselves and felt a sense of shame after unsuccessful attempts to accomplish something that wasn’t even realistic in the first place. Our culture values pushing limits more than it values honoring limits. As a result, it can be hard to accept that limitations are a part of what it means to be human. Not only do we have limits, but it’s healthy for us to learn how to respect our limitations.
Are you trying to please others or make others feel a certain way? Are you trying to accomplish as much as you did when you were younger – or before you took on that extra project at work? Did you leave yourself more than an hour to clean your entire house, top to bottom, before your guests arrived? Do you have enough money to purchase gifts without racking up credit card debt? These are important questions to ask ourselves. Perhaps you might even sit down with a trusted friend or a loved one to explore your answers.
The holidays tend to be a time where we are more prone to “magical thinking”. It’s important to consider that no matter what you agree to, or what others may ask of you, there are still only 24 hours in each day, and you still can only be in one place at a time. You may wish that you could cram more activities into your day – who doesn’t?! However, please be mindful of what the costs will be for you when you agree to do something. And understand that every time you agree to do something, that typically will mean that you’ll need to say “no” to something or someone else.
Create a healthy balance of demands vs priorities
Demands are what others want from us. Priorities are what we want for ourselves. Part of what makes the holidays a stressful time of year is that the balance between demands and priorities can get way off-kilter. When demands leave us little or no time for our priorities, we feel overwhelmed, unmotivated, and/or resentful. When our priorities leave little or no room for other’s demands, we aren’t working collaboratively with others, and we may be asking others to over-function and get off-kilter for us. Both risk hurting relationships with the very people we love.
What is your tendency? Do you tend to prioritize your own priorities? Or do you place the demands of others over your own priorities?
Life is always in flux and as a result we all get out of balance at times. As you look ahead to this holiday season, I encourage you to adopt a “sustainability mindset” instead of a “survival mindset”. Ask yourself what decisions you can make ahead of time to help you ensure that the tasks and events that you’re adding to your calendar this time of year don’t shift you into survival mode. What changes can you implement in order to help the next few months stay balanced?
Boundaries and living out of your values
There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to boundaries. Healthy boundaries honor the complexities of your unique situation, and ideally feel honoring for all parties. Setting and maintaining boundaries takes practice and specific skill sets, such as the ability to regulate your emotions and being appropriately assertive. All that to say, learning healthy boundaries is challenging and takes time.
Here’s the deal – boundaries protect. When people are first learning how to set healthy boundaries, I encourage them to identify specifically what they want to protect. I also encourage them to only communicate boundaries that they are prepared to maintain (setting and then not following through on boundaries just makes things harder in the long run). It’s worth taking some time to reflect on what is most meaningful to you this time of year, and what you want to protect. Is it the time spent in the kitchen and around the table with your loved ones? Or the ugly sweater party with friends? Or taking time to find that special gift? What about protecting your sleep so you can protect your sanity? If you aren’t clear about what is important to you and why, it will be harder to communicate your boundaries to others.
When people think about boundaries, it’s usually in terms of protecting themselves from others. This is incredibly important and I hope you view yourself as worth protecting, because as a human being you are worth protecting! But at the same time, you also need to be mindful of how you respond to others when you are under stress and distress. Usually those aren’t our proudest moments. We all need to learn how to act like ourselves and live out of our values, even when we are upset or under stress. The holidays are a great opportunity to practice living out of our values in the midst of conflict or stress. How you treat others says more about you than it does about the other person.
Fuel yourself with joy-filled moments and experiences
How low do you let your gas tank get before refueling your vehicle? As humans, we also need fueling and recharging. We need sleep and food to fuel our physical bodies. We also need life-giving or joy-filled moments to recharge our emotional and relational selves. All of us begin to wilt when we don’t take care of ourselves. So, why is it that our basic humans needs (sleep, healthy meals, meaningful connections with loved ones) are often the first things we neglect?
Yes, I recognize how challenging and counter-cultural it is to prioritize taking care of yourself. But self-care includes tending to the relationships that are most important to you. As a therapist, I’ve talked with so many people who believe they will eventually tend to themselves after all of their tasks are completed. Their intentions are pure. Their logic is valid. However, the truth is that life doesn’t work that way! Our to-do lists are never fully completed. So, rather than neglecting ourselves for the sake of our to-do list, it’s critical to make space in your life and schedule for life-giving moments. These will help you to find the “fuel” or the energy you need to tackle the things on your to-do list.
Yes, I realize this may sound counterintuitive! But humor me for a moment. I want you to imagine two different scenarios. First, identify a family member or in-law who knows how to “get under your skin”. Scenario number 1: Imagine yourself feeling exhausted because you stayed up half the night wrapping gifts. Imagine you’re also feeling upset with your partner after a recent disagreement and feeling like you have nothing left to give…ugh! Now, imagine yourself interacting with that person you identified. It probably won’t go well, will it?! But imagine yourself interacting with that same person, yet this time imagine that you are well rested and feel energized because you got to hang out with your best friend the night before. See what I mean? It pays off to sprinkle in some joy-filled activities into your schedule. Sometimes just knowing you have something to look forward to can make a difference!
Focus on what is within your control
So much in life is outside of our control. When things aren’t going our way or when you are up against significant challenges, it’s only natural that you’ll lose sight of the things within your control, while hyper-focusing on the things outside of your control. As you already know, when this happens you feel unmotivated and discouraged at best. So, find ways this holiday season to shift your focus onto the things that are within your control. This will empower you to realize what is outside of your control and therefore will help you decrease attempts to control what isn’t controllable. It will also help you to manage your own stress more effectively and help free you to create more life-giving moments with those you love.
You can do it!
Remember that friend I told you about earlier – the one who was dreading the holidays? The year after that first conversation we had, the holidays were a little better for her – but not yet where she wanted them to be because she needed more time to learn these skills. But she didn’t give up. Each year she continues to explore what she can do differently to make the holidays more enjoyable for herself and her immediate family. And each year she tells me she feels more empowered than the year before.
As I reflect on her story, I’m reminded of the value of making small, sustainable changes over time. Give yourself permission to start small and recognize that a lot of the concepts discussed here take time and intentional practice. Don’t expect yourself to master all these things immediately, but ask yourself how you can start implementing these skills this holiday season, and see how it goes for you!