“This year will be different,” author and mom of four Alexandra Kuykendall inevitably tells herself every year as she pulls out her Christmas decorations. This year she won’t be tired or stressed. This year she won’t be ready for the holidays to be over.
And this year it is different, because she’s vowed to focus on loving her actual Christmas, to be present in her life as it really is. Which she documents in her new book aptly titled, Loving My Actual Christmas: An Experiment in Relishing the Season.
As she writes in the book, “When I consider what I want to remember, or what I want my children to remember, a year from now, 10 years from now, it’s not an exhausted, overwhelmed, slightly crazed Christmas woman who is determined to make every moment magical and in the process gets angry and resentful.”
No doubt many of us can see ourselves or parts of ourselves in Kuykendall’s writing—maybe overwhelmed, exhausted and very, very annoyed. Part of the problem is that we cling to certain expectations. Often we don’t even realize we have them—until “we feel the disappointment creep in and then we realize we had some hopes for how things will go down,” Kuykendall said.
“I think there are a lot of social and media influences that create a lot of pressure to create the perfect tree, find the perfect gifts, redecorate your whole house to be Instagram worthy, etc.,” said Nicole Archer, Psy.D, a psychologist who specializes in anxiety and stress management in St. Petersburg, Fla., and sees Florida residents via telehealth at www.nicolearcherpsyd.com. “It can be easy to get caught up in this and compare ourselves to others.”
But the key to savoring this holiday season is to savor the imperfection, to savor what the holidays actually, really, sincerely look like in your home. These tips might help.
Acknowledge the pain. The holidays are an annual marker, Kuykendall said. Issues that are difficult all year or issues that we avoid all year surface at this time, and the pain becomes sharper, more acute. Losing a loved one. Being estranged from a sibling. Moving to a new place that has yet to feel like home. Being in debt. Deep debt.
In other words, the holidays can highlight what’s missing in our lives.
This is also when a slew of shoulds slip in. We think our pain should dissipate during the holidays. We think we should be joyful. All. The. Time. We think our loved ones should be nicer, and the conflicts should melt away. We think our reality should be different. We think everything should be better and brighter. And sometimes it is. And sometimes it isn’t.
Don’t gloss over your grief. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you’re feeling. Then when you’re ready, you can focus on gratitude (if that feels good). “Acknowledging the pain and then moving into gratitude will be the most honest way for us to find joy in an imperfect holiday season,” Kuykendall said.
Get creative with your gratitude. “Nothing switches our perspective like gratitude,” Kuykendall said. Which is why she suggested reflecting on everything you’re thankful for this year. “The more specific and detailed you can be, the more quickly your list will grow and you will find there is much to embrace.”
This is vital because so often we hyperfocus on everything we wish was different—and we miss out on savoring the things we’d never change, Kuykendall said.
There are many fun ways to cultivate gratitude. For instance, you can go through the gratitude alphabet: Write down what you’re thankful for that begins with the letter A, then the letter B, then the letter C, and so on. You can draw what you’re thankful for—and involve your spouse or kids or best friend. You can write letters to loved ones, expressing what they mean to you (which makes a beautiful holiday gift). You can use your senses, jotting down the scents, sounds, sights and tastes you’re thankful for.
Assess your expectations. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed when we don’t evaluate our expectations and—if they’re unreasonable—adjust them, Archer said. She recommended asking ourselves these questions: “Is this within my skillset or budget or timeframe? Am I doing this for me or for others?”
This isn’t about whittling down your holidays to nothing. Because maybe your favorite part about Christmas or Hanukkah is making an elaborate meal that takes hours or decorating every inch of your home, which takes a few days. Maybe it’s getting 50 people together or having a different event to attend every night. Maybe simplifying the holidays is simply not your thing.
The key is to remember what’s important to you—and not overextend yourself or strive to create someone else’s vision for the holidays. Because that’s when stress spikes, and you don’t get to savor the holiday.
Remember what perfectionism really is. Archer shared this poignant quote from Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection: “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”
Our holidays will be imperfect, because we are imperfect, because life is imperfect. But there is laughter and connection and meaning in the messy, cluttered, chaotic moments. What would happen if you embraced it this year—without wishing it away, without wanting it to be different? What if you honored your feelings and accepted the season exactly as it is?