Thanksgiving kicks off the start of the holiday season, which is marketed as the happiest time of the year. And on the surface, what’s not to like? Elaborate dinners with friends and family, gift-giving and receiving, and curling up in front of a fireplace in comfy slippers are the order of the day. Yet, like so many things, the fantasy doesn’t always match reality.
Enter the holiday blues.
It’s no wonder that the expectation of holiday cheer leaves so many feeling depressed or stressed, or both. And the reasons are myriad, but our first clue lies in that one word: expectations. Let’s focus on our expectations of ourselves. After all, that’s the only area we can control.
This part works best with visualization. Imagine a family or friend holiday gathering you have coming up. Picture the people there, what they are doing, and what you are doing. What are you talking about? How is the food? How do you feel?
First, there are no right or wrong answers. But did anyone visualize anything but good food, good company, good conversation, and all participants in a good mood? Unlikely. And why would we visualize stress, strife, and overcooked turkey? But that visualization just gave you a clear picture of your expectations. So, when something doesn’t go the way you imagined (which inevitably will happen), you are set up for disappointment. The answer isn’t to expect to have a bad time, instead be realistic and ready to accept a few things that go off script so that they don’t derail your enjoyment of the day as a whole.
A holiday stress survey conducted in 2018 surveyed 1,166 people aged 25 to 60, of which 76 percent were female. 70% of the respondents reported that they experience holiday stress because they are overly committed to making the holiday special and enjoyable for everyone else.
Let that sink in.
I think it resonates with many people. Especially when we are committed to a vision we have of how the day should go. It goes back to control. While many of us work to create a memorable, even picture-perfect holiday, there are a lot of aspects of that goal that are simply beyond our control. Some people may not be able to attend, others may show up in a less than cheerful mood, and it’s not uncommon for the occasional awkward moment or argument to ensue. You can’t force people to be cheerful, kind, considerate, respectful, or even good cooks.
But isn’t that what the vision of a magical and enjoyable holiday demands?
We can see the impossibility of it all. What’s really most surprising to me is that ONLY 70% of people said they were stressed out about the holidays.
So back to you, how do you maintain your cheerful and holiday-appropriate attitude of gratitude when everyone around you refuses to get with the program and be suitably festive and cheerful?
First, decide that the way you feel isn’t dependent upon anyone else’s enjoyment. So, if someone doesn’t like your cranberry tart, who cares? (They’re wrong, of course, it’s delicious!) Often easier said than done, especially if you find yourself central to a maelstrom of emotions that you can’t help but feel are somehow your responsibility. When people aren’t happy, it can feel personal. After all, you put in a lot of effort, and all they had to do was show up and enjoy it! In moments when you feel your mood start to slide from merry and bright, give yourself a mental shortcut, something you can think or repeat to yourself. Something like, I’m exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to do. And if that isn’t true, make it true. You should have a special day independent of other people’s choices.
Rethink your vision. What makes holiday gatherings meaningful to you, personally? What are the individual elements that make the celebration special?
It’s less about ‘good food’ or even ‘good conversation.’ While Great-grandma Johanna’s stuffing recipe may be a cherished family tradition, it’s probably the making of it that is the most fulfilling. The most memorable moment of the holiday might happen in the kitchen the night before, where you teach Johanna’s great-great-granddaughter how to make that stuffing.
Identify the parts that are the most special to you, and put your energy there. Table settings, 14 different kinds of pie, and refereeing family disputes can be somebody else’s job. And honestly, the rest will be just fine.