For most of us the holidays don’t exactly resemble a Hallmark movie with easily resolved conflict, fairy tale festivities and everything falling into place. Which can be very upsetting, and lead us to feel like complete and utter failures.
Why can’t we have a beautiful, stress-free holiday? Why does something always have to go wrong?
One of the biggest challenges about the holidays is that it’s a “pressure cooker of expectations,” said Stephanie Dobbin, LMFT, CGP, a relationship and group psychotherapist who specializes in helping busy healthcare professionals have happier relationships and less stress in Rochester, NY.
Everyone has expectations, many of which go unexpressed. Which also means that when these expectations go unmet, disappointment, resentment, and sadness can set in.
As Julia Nowland, an Australia-based marriage counsellor, said: “It doesn’t matter how wonderful the decorations are or how delicious the food. The most significant piece in the meaning of the holiday season is created from the mood individuals are in, and the interactions they have during that time.”
Plus, the pressure often exacerbates existing tensions between family members — “even if you’re usually able to set [that tension] aside,” Dobbin said.
We also tend to underestimate the power of our specific family dynamics, which have all sorts of spoken and unspoken rules, and conscious and unconscious scripts, she said. In other words, our families can “expect us to behave, react and feel the way we’ve always behaved, reacted and felt.”
There may be rules about how we handle emotions and conflict (e.g., “preserving peace is more important than being honest about how you really feel”). There may be rules about how we greet each other and say goodbye (e.g., hugging and kissing). Rules can be helpful and unhelpful. They can “give cohesion to families and sometimes create comfort and safety (e.g., ‘It’s OK to disagree sometimes—It doesn’t threaten our connection to each other’),” Dobbin said.
Even though relationships are imperfect, and challenges exist, it doesn’t mean your holiday season is doomed. Of course, every family situation varies, but below are some general tips to help to reconnect with loved ones and have a meaningful holiday season.
Reflect on what you really want. Do you want to host Thanksgiving at your house? Do you want to stay at a hotel instead of with your in-laws? Do you want to minimize gift giving and be home on New Year’s Eve?
Dobbin stressed the importance of being honest with yourself about what you truly want for the holidays and why. “Knowing your desires is so vital, because when you defer your wants and needs year after year, it’s easy to become resentful.” Share your feelings with your partner, and try to come to a compromise, she said.
Reassess rituals. Do any rituals feel outdated, awkward or just not fun anymore? As Dobbin said, “Because most families are wired to keep things the same, sometimes traditions outlast their shelf life. What worked when you were a child in your nuclear family of five may not work so well in your family’s current form.”
You might want to stop some rituals, but tweak others. Either way, the key is to share a new or creative solution: “A proactive suggestion often goes over better than a passive complaint.”
Think about small ways to bond. “From my experience as a therapist, I am constantly amazed at the fact that we all want the same thing: to love and be loved,” said Mara Hirschfeld, a licensed marriage and family therapist who has a private practice in Midtown Manhattan specializing in individuals and couples going through relationship distress. “We all want to feel seen, heard, and cared for in a way that sends us the message that we matter; it’s just part of being human.”
For instance, you might write a note expressing your appreciation for your loved one, or host a dinner together, she said. Just being present during a conversation can make a big difference: making eye contact, asking questions about them and their life, and not interrupting.
Make detailed plans now. Dobbin suggested starting an email thread with your loved ones about what everyone wants, and how you can make it happen. Again, a big part of holiday stress comes from unexpressed expectations and subsequent disappointment, she said. Do this even if it seems like plans are set in stone.
According to Dobbin, you might write: “Hey, just wanted to make sure we’re all on the same page with what we’re doing for Thanksgiving this year. I also thought we could see what everyone’s hopes and expectations are for the weekend and put our heads together to work out the logistics.”
What happens if things go awry? Work it out over the phone, she said.
Reach out before the holidays. Both Nowland and Dobbin emphasized reconnecting and communicating with loved ones prior to holiday gatherings. Try to heal any hurts and cultivate generosity, Nowland said. Talk through whatever issue you’re having, take responsibility for your part, and listen to your loved one’s perspective and try to understand, she said.
Call, text or email loved ones you’ve drifted away from, Dobbin said. “This can reduce some awkwardness, and allow you to deepen the connection in person rather than scrambling to revive a connection from scratch during a hectic weekend.”
Temper expectations. Nowland noted that it’s important to manage your expectations around get-togethers. For example, if your uncle is always late to events, forgo the expectation to “start festivities when everyone has arrived.” Doing so will help you (and likely everyone else) feel calmer and happier.
Embrace the moments you do have. The holidays also are tough because we’re often traveling or trying to see multiple families in a short amount of time. “Instead of focusing your energy on what you’re not doing [or] who you aren’t able to please, try to stay present in the experiences you are a part of,” Hirschfeld said. Try to appreciate and savor the time you do have, she said.
Honor the holiday activities you want to do. Put these activities on the calendar right now, Dobbin said. For instance, you might want to bake cookies, have close friends over for a small Hanukkah party or take a long, solo walk on Thanksgiving morning.
“It’s important that you have things to look forward to over the holidays so that not everything feels like an obligation.” Also, think outside the specific days of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas. Think about the overall season, which gives you more time to schedule special activities with others and with just yourself, she said.
Show yourself compassion and love, too. Similarly, Hirschfeld underscored the importance of self-compassion. After all, “it’s your holiday, too.” For instance, you might make time to hike, attend your favorite yoga class, get a massage and read before bed. Or “try something on a smaller scale, such as taking a deep breath, [practicing] a morning meditation, or stepping away from the family for a moment to yourself to reflect.”
Your holidays might not be a Hallmark movie (or come close). And that’s OK. Because when you relinquish your expectations, embrace what is, make some tweaks and prioritize compassionate communication, they might even be better. Either way, they are real and authentic—and they are yours.