It’s that time of year again . . . the holidays.
“The most wonderful time of the year,” as those nostalgic songs promise: the halls decked, chestnuts roasting, sleighbells ringing, all eyes twinkling with cheer.
A time of family togetherness, peace, harmony and joy. But for many of us, just reading these words can cause a flood of stress, a sense of exhaustion and even despair. We feel compelled to do too much, eat and drink too much, and spend too much – and we can end up feeling emptier than ever.
How can we navigate this time of year in a healthy way, and resist going through the motions? How do we lose the stress and find the joy?
The good news is – in the midst of all the jingling bells, family obligations and commercial messages – we do have some choices. Here are three steps toward a less frenzied, more enjoyable holiday season.
1. Examine the myths Much of our stress at this time of year stems from the tide of images, messages and pressure about what the holidays “should” be. A myth is defined as “a widely held but false belief or idea.” Myths are not facts, they are false. When these false beliefs have been fed to us over and over, year after year, and when they are entangled with memories and emotions, we can tend to incorporate these false beliefs as truth. It’s a set up for stress and disappointment; reality simply can’t measure up to the myth. Look at some of the pervasive holiday myths and notice which ones tend to most resonate for you. Can you see them for what they really are – falsehoods – and let them go?
Everything has to be perfect.
Money is no object.
Everyone must get along, and we should all be together.
Everyone must be happy and in a festive mood.
You must buy everyone the right gift – and the bigger the present, the deeper the love.
Your children will be patient and well behaved in all social situations.
This holiday will be better than the last.
This time will be the most special time of the year.
You must be unselfish, take care of everyone else, and make sure people are having a good time.
You must say “yes” to every social obligation.
You must eat or drink too much and say it was fantastic.
You must get in touch with every friend you know as part of the holiday spirit.
You must be fair in how you spend your time with all your relatives, making sure no one feels shortchanged.
You must be your best self at all times, despite doing more and having less time than at any other time of the year.
2. Lower expectations
After examining the myths, and dismissing the ones that cause you stress, it might be helpful to reflect on expectations related to the holidays.
All the anticipation leading up to this season, combined with memories and emotions about holidays gone by, can be fertile ground for unrealistic demands. Unattainable expectations fuel our stress, as we exhaust ourselves trying to live up to (and expecting others to live up to) an impossible standard – setting us up for inevitable disappointment. As you contemplate the holidays, manage your expectations.
Awareness is the first step, and from there you can make choices. Take an inventory of your expectations about the holidays, do a reality check and reset.
3. Clarify what’s most important
Think about your most cherished holiday memories. Unlike the myths and expectations described above, these memories usually have little to do with standards of perfection, a spotless house or being all things to all people.
For most of us, our fondest memories center on connecting with others, finding meaning and maybe even having some fun.
Before you begin the holiday rush, determine what really matters to you. Have a conversation with your family and loved ones, and consider asking:
What have been our most treasured holiday memories in the past?
What do we most value about the holidays?
What are the rituals, activities and traditions that mean the most to us?
What are the things that take up a lot of energy, but don’t really matter that much?
Use this insight to plan your priorities for the holiday season. As for the rest: give yourself permission to simplify. Notice when the myths or lofty expectations arise, and make the choice to let them go.
Inasmuch as you can, schedule what’s most meaningful for you and your family first, before the obligations fill up your calendar. While you’re at it, set aside “down time” and time for self- care. Let this season of goodwill and kindness involves some kindness toward yourself.
Then you can be present for the moments that really matter.
(Penni Perri is the director of the Concord Hospital Employee Assistance Program. Concord Hospital is a contributing member of the Capital Area Wellness Coalition (CAWC), which coordinates community resources and builds partnerships to create a culture of healthy living for everyone. The CAWC meets monthly on the second Wednesday at 8 a.m. at the Center for Health Promotion, 49 S. Main St. in Concord. Visit capwellness.org to learn more.)