We can find joy even if the holiday season doesn’t live up to our expectations.
Feeling overwhelmed? Wondering how you’re going to get it all done? Wishing you could just lie down? You aren’t alone.
The holidays can be stressful. Often, there’s a lot to do and a lot to buy and a lot of people to see. Sometimes we get so busy we have a hard time enjoying events that we’re otherwise looking forward to.
But we can make this holiday season less stressful for ourselves. Below are two tips to enjoy the holidays more.
Accept that the holidays will probably be, at times, disappointing
Bet you weren’t expecting that one! But acceptance is a strangely effective strategy for feeling happier and more relaxed at any time of the year. When we accept a person or a situation we find challenging, we let go of the resistance that creates stress and tension. There’s a lot of truth to the adage that “what we resist, persists.”
Here’s how this works. When someone or something is being a pain in your rear, take a deep breath and accept the situation. Say to yourself something like, “I accept that Jane is upset right now; I allow this situation to be as it is.” Then notice how you are feeling, and accept how you are feeling, as well. You can say to yourself, “I accept that I am feeling angry at Jane and disappointed. I allow my feelings to be as they are right now.”
If accepting a disappointing situation or person seems too hard for you, here are the handy alternatives you’re left with:
- You can judge and criticize others and the disappointing situation in general and blame others for your own negative feelings. As a bonus, everyone around you will no doubt feel your judgment. Some people will likely feel wrongly accused, or like you are trying to “fix” them. You’ll achieve the dual outcomes of being hurtful to others while simultaneously making yourself feel tense and lonely.
- Another alternative to acceptance is to nurse your anxiety and despair over the situation through rumination. To ruminate effectively, think about what is wrong with the situation or person as often as possible. Don’t let yourself become distracted from the negative. Tell everyone what you don’t like about the situation or person. This will successfully amplify both your negative feelings and the difficulty of the situation.
- You can also definitely deny how difficult the situation is by pretending that nothing is bothering you. You can stuff your hard feelings down by drinking too much or by staying really, really busy and stressed. Simply avoid situations and people you don’t want to deal with, because that’s more important than participating in meaningful traditions and events.
Criticism, judgment, rumination, blaming, denial, and avoidance are almost like holiday rituals for some of us. But they are all tactics of resistance, and they won’t protect you. Ironically, these tactics will allow the disappointments or difficulties to further embed themselves into your psyche.
This is a long-winded way of pointing out that resistance doesn’t make us less stressed or more joyful in difficult situations. What does work is to simply accept that the circumstance is currently hard. We can accept a difficult situation, and still make an effort to improve things. This gentle acceptance does not mean that you are resigned to a miserable holiday, or that nothing you do will make the situation better. Maybe it will get better—and maybe it won’t.
Accepting the reality of a difficult situation allows us to soften. This softening opens the door to our own compassion and wisdom; and we all know that over the holidays, we are going to need those things.
Let go of expectations while turning your attention to what you appreciate
Some people (myself included) suffer from what I think of as an abundance paradox: Because we have so much, it becomes easy to take our good fortune for granted. As a result, we are more likely to feel disappointed when we don’t get what we want than to feel grateful when we do.
This tendency can be especially pronounced during the holidays, when we tend to have high hopes that everything will be perfect and wonderful and memorable. You might have a fantasy of a sweet, close relationship with an in-law, for instance, or grand ideas about the perfect Christmas Eve dinner.
This sort of hope, as my dear friend Susie Rinehart has reminded me, can be a slippery slope to unhappiness: Hoping a holiday event will be the best-ever can quickly become a feeling that we won’t be happy unless it is, leading to sadness and disappointment when reality doesn’t live up to our ideal.
Unfortunately, the reality of the holidays is unlikely to ever outdo our fantasies of how great everything could be. So, the trick is to ditch our expectations and instead notice what is actually happening in the moment. And then find something about that moment to appreciate.
Can you appreciate that your spouse did a lot of planning (or dishes, or shopping) this week? Do you feel grateful that you have enough food for your holiday table? Are you thankful for your health (or if your health is not great, that you are still here)?
It’s enough to notice and appreciate the small things, but when I’m having trouble with this, I like to practice an extreme form of gratitude that involves contemplating how fleeting our lives may be. There’s nothing like facing death to make us appreciate our lives—and sure enough, research finds that when people visualize their own death in detail, their gratitude increases.
If you feel stuck on what isn’t going well rather than what is, set aside some time to reflect on the following questions. Take each question one at a time and try journaling an answer to each before moving on to the next one.
- What would I do if this were the last holiday season I had left to live? What would I do the same, and what would I do differently?
- What would I do if this were the last holiday season that my spouse, parents, or children had left to live? What would I do the same, and what would I do differently?
It’s a little heavy, I know, but contemplating death does tend to put things in perspective.
As the holidays approach, we will likely feel stressed and exhausted, but we need not feel like victims to this time of year. We often have a great deal of choice about what we do and how we feel. We can choose to bring acceptance to difficult situations and emotions, and we can choose to turn our attention to the things that we appreciate.
This holiday season, may we all see abundance when it is all around us—not an abundance of stuff, necessarily, but rather an abundance of love and connection. Even during the difficult bits.
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