Ah, the holidays. The lights, the food, the festivities, the music, the presents, the decorations, and…*gasp*…the stress! Many people complain of increased stress this time of year so if you’re feeling it, please know you’re in very good company. A couple of years ago on social media, I saw a meme that said something like, “The Holidays: Keeping Therapists in Business for Decades.” Ha! I solemnly swear to you right here and now that we therapist-types do not have some secret methods in place for jacking up our nation’s holiday stress levels in order to generate business for ourselves. In fact, many of us therapists are prone to experience holiday-related stress, too. As a society, we are collectively bombarded at this time of year with messages about how to have the “perfect” holiday season, with a heavy emphasis on family time. That’s a lot of pressure! And we can feel that pressure in a few different ways. If we buy into the pressure to create a perfect holiday, we might drive ourselves at a frantic pace. If we don’t have good relationships with our families, or if we have negative experiences associated with holiday-time, we might feel depressed when we compare our life to everyone else who seems to be having so much fun. And what if we belong to a religion or culture that doesn’t celebrate Christmas? Talk about feeling left out!
My biggest piece of advice for staying sane during the holiday season is to LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS. Yep, I said it. Before you nickname me The Grinch or Scrooge, let me explain! If you judge your life by creating the “perfect” holiday, you are signing up for guaranteed disappointment. Likewise, if you judge your life in comparison to the seemingly “perfect” lives of your co-worker, your neighbors down the street, or your social media pal from high school, you are signing up for heartache. Be careful about comparing your life to others. There is always more than meets the eye. Give yourself a huge gift by accepting the fact that everybody and everything in this life is imperfect. Need a little more advice on how to do this? You are in luck! I wrote about this very topic a few months ago in my blog post called, “This Blog Is Gonna Have Typos: Reflections on Perfectionism.” If you read it, you may remember me mentioning the Japanese practice of wabi-sabi, which involves embracing imperfections in everyday life. We could all use to practice a little holiday season wabi sabi, in my humble opinion.
Another source of holiday stress can be the emphasis on family at this time of year. This can be especially painful for people who may be estranged from family or who have lost beloved family members. The pressure to create a perfect family holiday, however, can even affect people who love and value their family. For most of us, nobody can trigger us quite like our family can. Why is that? Oh my goodness, the answer to that question could take us many blog posts to explore! A short answer is that family dynamics are usually quite complicated. Given this fact, please consider applying my first piece of advice in the previous paragraph to your family relationships over the holidays. What’s that? You need a refresher on the advice? Here you go: LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS. Yep, I said it again. If you expect your family to behave perfectly over the holidays, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. Let’s be clear here, though. You don’t want to lower your expectations so much that you tolerate abuse or otherwise toxic behavior. But if you expect your quirky Aunt Edith and your loudmouth cousin Zeke and your always-late sister to shape up and be “normal,” you might want to re-think your expectations. I’ve talked about this so much with patients over the years, I’ve developed the “Family Holiday Serenity Prayer.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek take on the traditional and wonderfully useful Serenity Prayer. In case you’re unfamiliar with the traditional Serenity Prayer, here it is:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Beautiful and poignant, right? Well, here’s my cheeky version, the Family Holiday Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept my family as they are,
The courage to set boundaries as needed,
And the wisdom to “not poke the crazy.”
Wait a minute…Dr. Jen, did you just call my family crazy?! No, of course not! Let me explain. In the first line, we commit to accepting our family members for who they are, not who we want them to be or think they should be. Keep in mind that acceptance does not mean you have to like, condone, or sign up for more of something or someone. Acceptance simply means not fighting with reality, including the reality of who your family members really are: the good stuff, the bad stuff, and everything in between. When you set your expectations realistically, you reduce the chances of feeling disappointed. In the second line, we commit to set boundaries with family when needed. Boundaries do not need to be set harshly or combatively. In fact, they can be set with love and respect.
And then there’s the last line of the Family Holiday Serenity Prayer. I’m really not calling your family crazy, but every family has it’s own crazy-making dynamics, right? Hot-button issues, sensitive memories of difficult times, or those topics that highlight deep divisions within your family and might cause your sibling, parent, cousin, or YOU to blow a gasket. Over the holidays, an easy-to-say but hard-to-follow piece of advice is don’t go poking around in your family’s “crazy,” hot-button stuff if you already know it’s likely to ignite un-fun family fireworks. Remember the acceptance work we did in the previous paragraph? It fits here, too, by allowing us to accept that our family, like everyone else’s, has some crazy-making patterns. Important review: acceptance does not equal liking, condoning, or signing up for more. It simply means maintaining a realistic awareness of our family. You may want to take a few moments to preemptively explore what family dynamics trigger you, and decide how you can handle them constructively if they arise. Feel free to recite the Family Holiday Serenity Prayer to yourself as often as needed!
A final piece of advice is to encourage you to keep in mind the true spirit of the holiday season, which can be challenging given the materialistic frenzy of modern times. At this time of year, almost all of the world’s major religious traditions celebrate finding light in the dark. For humans, there seems to be something universally sacred about searching for and finding a light to guide us through dark times. In the holiday season, we honor the importance of hope.
I wish you a holiday season filled with much light and hope.
P.S. In case you need a little more lightness in your holiday season, here’s a picture of Baxter wearing his Christmas tie. I promise that he only had to wear it for a minute while I took the photo. If you look closely, you can see Baxter practicing acceptance of his well-meaning but wacky human mom.