The holidays are a time when we have visions of sugar plums (as well as car commercials in which husbands buy their wives European luxury vehicles topped with big, shiny, red bows) dancing in our heads. It is a time loaded with expectations, and not the reasonable variety. Yes, our kids might write a three-page letter to Santa outlining all of their Christmas requests, and we see that their needs are a bit excessive. However, very often we have similar laundry lists of expectations that impact our ability to enjoy the season. Did I lose you there? Did you just say to yourself: but Tracey, all I want is to be with my family and be happy? I don’t need a new 500 series S-Class Mercedes, a Bose Surround-Sound System or a Louis Vuitton bag in order to have a happy holiday.
That said, we all have expectations (that we might not be fully aware of) that impact our ability to have a happy holiday. Here are a few such expectations:
1. I am going to be able to bake cookies, send handmade cards, buy the perfect present for everyone on my list and make a Christmas dinner that Martha Stewart would envy.
2. This year there will be no family stresses. Everyone will treat each other with loving-kindness and there will be no conflicts.
3. My partner will give me a gift that reflects his or her love for me perfectly and make me feel loved.
4. This Christmas will be “special.” And I will have the kind of dream Christmas that I never had before.
Okay, so maybe your expectations are a little more reasonable. But there may be some unreasonable expectations lurking in your psyche even if you are sure you don’t have any. Denying expectations makes us more prone to ignoring the expectations that we do have. Better to make conscious our expectations; we can see how we can turn unrealistic ones into the realistic variety.
Here is my recipe for realistic expectations (might be more challenging than the recipe for Grandma’s Christmas cookies). Sit down and write a list of your expectations, realistic and otherwise, about the holidays, then:
- Look at the expectations and look at the emotional need behind them. If I want to give everyone else a perfect Christmas what is it I really want? I want to make them feel loved. How might I do that in other ways than decorating, shopping and baking?
- See how lowering your expectations can actually get you more of what you want. You might say to yourself, “Okay, I know I would love for my mom and dad to come and stay with us for the holidays. However, I know that mom and I do better for short periods of time. If I invite them just for dinner, we are more likely to enjoy each other more and have less time for conflict.”
- Discover your negative expectations as well as your positive ones: “Uncle Fred is always rude and there is nothing I can do about it.” By having this kind of expectation you don’t get to see the good in Uncle Fred and Aunt Mary. Perhaps ask yourself if there are things about Uncle Fred you enjoy–maybe he is handy and can help you put together the bike for the kids. And you love Aunt Mary’s carrot cake. They are still going to be who they are but you can find real expectations that can be met.
Directly facing your expectations lowers stress, decreases anxiety and depression and leads to greater satisfaction. Discovering the emotional needs behind your holiday expectations and finding ways you can meet them is even more satisfying than finding that Mercedes with a bow under the tree.
TRACEY CLEANTIS is a professional speaker in private practice and also writes for Psychology Today, Huffington Post and on her own blog, “La Belette Rouge.” She combines her humor and expertise in helping people in desperate pain by providing a practical roadmap through loss and grief of all kinds.