Bloated gift lists are just a symptom of the larger ailment of overblown holiday expectations. “Some people think they have to create a fantasy situation that is unattainable by anyone,” says Lack. “When their life can’t live up to the fantasy, they may feel disappointment and sometimes depression.”
Lack says unrealistic sugarplum fantasies usually have their roots in childhood. Some people who feel they missed out on holiday fun as children—for example, because their family was too poor to buy many gifts or because a parent was alcoholic or absent—may go overboard trying to make up for it as adults. At the other extreme, some people who come from an affluent family may feel inadequate when they can’t give their children the same kind of lavish holidays they had.
Create traditions that suit your family
The solution, says Lack, is simple: “Keep your expectations grounded in reality.” Give up your fantasy of a Norman Rockwell scene around the table or a commercial wonderland under the tree. “Instead, put some effort into creating new traditions that suit your real-life family and budget,” says Lack. “Sit down and think about what would please your family as a unit.” For example, you might want to all go ice-skating or watch a favorite movie together. Whatever you do, keep the focus on people rather than things, and realize that not everything has to be perfect.
Allow enough time for rest and relaxation, too. “Many people overextend themselves trying to prepare for something wonderful, to the point where they deprive themselves of normal self-care,” says Lack. As a result, they get tired and run down, making it nearly impossible for them to actually enjoy the big day. When people feel harried, they also are more likely to eat too much rich food and drink too much alcohol in an effort to give themselves an artificial boost. Unfortunately, the result of this misguided strategy is that they just wind up feeling worse.
Away for the holidays: a radical suggestion
For many people, the prospect of going home for the holidays ranks high on their seasonal stress list. “A lot of family visits take place out of habit and a sense of obligation,” says Caplan. “However, when everybody is acting based on shoulds and obligation, nobody finds much deep satisfaction.”
Caplan’s radical suggestion: Ask yourself whether you really want to go home this year. “If it works to go home, by all means do so, but sometimes you’re better off not going. Lots of mature people who love their families very much still decide to skip the trip.”
Breaking the news to family members takes some tact, however. “If you try to explain that you’re not going home because the family neurosis is going to set you back years in therapy, they probably will misunderstand and feel hurt and upset,” says Caplan. “It’s fine to tell them that you can’t take off work, have other plans, or can’t afford the trip.” It may help to set an alternate date for a visit at a less stressful time. If you do, though, be sure to follow through on your promise.