Well, it’s the second week of December and the holidays are officially upon us. I’ve been meaning to write a short piece on managing holiday stress, but I’ve been too busy shopping for presents, digging out the Christmas cards that I bought on sale last year (haven’t written any yet), removing the Thanksgiving masterpieces from the fridge to make way for the painted snowmen and cut-out snowflakes, putting the fall pumpkins in the compost, making 15 pairs of elf shoes for the kindergarten show, getting decorations out of storage…
Amazing isn’t it? The holidays have a momentum of their own. When kept in balance, we can bounce along on the excitement, anticipation and good cheer of the season, but too often our expectations and commitments run out of control like the snowball rolling down the mountain. The crash at the bottom is never a pretty sight and the best we can hope for is getting through Christmas dinner without any bloodshed.
So, what’s the secret to having a perfect Christmas (or any other major holiday)? The answer is to stop trying to have a perfect Christmas. Instead, aim for having a “good-enough” Christmas. Practice saying these phrases until they roll off your tongue: “It’s just fine the way it is.” “That’s good enough.” “Not this year.” “That’s enough for now.”
Perfectionism, as always, can hijack your holidays and turn Christmas cheer into a nightmare. We try to do too much. We try to do it perfectly. We want our homes and families to look like the ones on the greeting cards and magazine covers. The job of decorating (or baking, or writing the Christmas cards and family letters, or shopping for perfect presents…) seems overwhelming because of our huge expectations. Then, we procrastinate and leave things until the last minute. Then we turn into raving lunatics. Then, if they know what’s best for them, our families avoid us because “Mom’s in one of those moods.” Lots of fun and Christmas cheer, huh?
So, downsize the expectations. Don’t sit and think about the witty Christmas letter you’re going to write complete with a photo journal of the year. Instead, get up and spend 15 minutes addressing Christmas cards. Then say “that’s enough for now.” Spend 15 minutes putting up some Christmas decorations, then say “That looks great. It’s just fine the way it is.” Make paper snowflakes with your children for 15 minutes and then say “that was fun. Maybe we can do some more tomorrow.” Don’t let the tasks become big and overwhelming. Just do a little and then let it go. You are much more likely to enjoy the holiday preparations this way. Put on the Christmas music and have fun.
Next on the list is to take a minute to reflect on your family traditions. Do you enjoy them? Do you feel enslaved buy a particular ritual? A few years ago a friend of mine told me about a family tradition that has since gone by the wayside. In her home, Santa was the one who put the lights on the Christmas tree. This meant that after spending Christmas Eve with the in-laws, driving an hour and a half home, getting two excited, over-tired children off to bed, and filling stockings, then they had to put the lights on the Christmas tree. They never got more than a few hours of sleep before having to get up and be festive and cheery. Re-evaluate which traditions are meaningful, enjoyable and worthy of your time and energy. If they bring more stress than joy, let them go.
Thirdly, notice how much of your attention is focused on the final product of your activity and how much is focused on the activity itself. Are you worried about how the gingerbread house looks? Does each cookie have to be perfectly shaped? Each present a work of art? (Note the subtext here: are you a control freak?) When possible, try to shift your attention to the process. What your children will remember is a feeling of happiness. Joy in the home. Good smells. Good times. They will remember the fun of decorating the tree, not how perfectly balanced the color scheme is.
Now, I’m not telling you that you need to let the kids be in charge of everything. If there are some things that are important to you, be clear about it. If you want to have grown-up, color-coordinated decorations in the dining room, that’s fine. Just let your kids know that these decorations are for mommy to do and provide a place of honor elsewhere for the paper chains and handprint Santas.
Finally, I want to say a little word about the stress of extended family. There are many people for whom holiday cheer is mixed with varying amounts of dread regarding the family gatherings. Family events can stir up painful memories, highlight differences of opinion and provide a stage for bad behavior. In order to minimize the effect of this stress on your holiday experience, spend some time preparing. Decide ahead of time how long to stay at a family function. Give yourself permission to “step outside for some fresh air” if you need a break. Talk with your partner about your concerns and plan a graceful exit strategy.
One common mistake is to go into the situation hoping, wishing, begging for things to be different. This is a set-up for disappointment. It is unlikely that any huge transformations or enlightenment has happened since the last family gathering. The flip side of the same coin is to enter the event already angry about how it’s going to turn out. You look for and anticipate the problems before they occur. You are ready for a battle at the drop of a hat.
In both scenarios, you are contributing to the dynamic of conflict. The best thing to do (though not easy, I know) is to accept the situation for what it is. Your resentment and your “wishing things were different” only contribute to your stress. They don’t change the situation. Don’t expect anyone to behave any differently than they always have – if they do, consider it your Christmas bonus. Instead, just come prepared with some coping skills and a healthy dose of light-heartedness.
I read a brief article on Oprah’s website (all good clinical research begins with Oprah, doesn’t it?) about strategies for coping with difficult family gatherings. There were a couple of fun ways to avoid being sucked into the same old family arguments and destructive patterns of behavior. Maintaining a sense of humor and playfulness is hard to do around people who drive you crazy, but it will help you tremendously if you can do it.
Martha Beck suggests comparing stories with a good friend before and after the holidays. Make an agreement to see who can come back with the best tale of family dysfunction. Whoever returns with the best story gets a free lunch. Then, during the family gathering you can be viewing the shenanigans as good comedy material. Plan how you will tell the story. You could be a winner!
Alternatively, Beck suggests making yourself a bingo card of the words and phrases you expect (or dread) to hear your family say. When you get a “bingo” you must sneak off and call your friend. Whoever gets “bingo” first gets a free lunch.
Activities like this can help you shift your perspective. They are not meant to be mean-spirited and should never be shared with the family at large. It is a way for you to protect yourself from your own anger and resentment. If you can maintain a sense of humor, perhaps your family dinner can be salvaged.
Regardless of your particular challenges this holiday season, I wish you heaps of love and happiness, laughter, excitement, good smells, joyous sounds, moments of peace, and warm feelings. All the best to you and your loved ones!
First Published 2008