Ah, the joys of the holiday season! The smell of fresh-baked gingerbread cookies, the cheerful sounds of Christmas carols as we shop, the happiness on the faces of children opening presents, the warm familiarity of loved traditions… there is much to look forward to this time of year.
But oh, the stresses of the holiday season! The crowded stores and packed parking lots, the pressure to buy the perfect gift without blowing the budget, the rush to get ready and head out the door to yet another Christmas event, the arguments with the ex about who gets the kids, the frustrations of hanging out with family members who know just how to push our buttons, the bickering of the kids over who gets to play with the new toys first… there is much to dread about this time of year!
How can we better prepare for the holiday season so that we minimize the stresses and increase the joys? How can we create a more meaningful Christmas season that helps bring our family together?
My husband and I have found that one of the keys to a less-stressful holiday season is to clarify our expectations ahead of time.
The Problem of Unrealistic Expectations
During the holidays, I find that my unrealistic expectations multiply. I have unrealistic expectations of how harmonious and meaningful our family times will be. For example, every year I picture our family decorating the tree with Christmas music playing softly in the background and the smell of cinnamon in the air. I envision lovingly taking the ornaments out of the storage box one by one, and perhaps one of the kids saying, “Tell us the story of where you got this angel ornament again, Mom and Dad!” and a wonderful time being had by all.
In reality, decorating the tree usually involved lights not working, the tree persistently leaning to one side, kids wanting to hurry up and be finished, and me feeling frustrated and disappointed that real life did not measure up to my imagination.
Other common unrealistic expectations of the season are expecting ourselves to be able to accomplish more in a day than is possible for any one human being, expecting everyone to feel only happiness on Christmas morning, or expecting other people to know what we want without being told.
Unrealistic expectations set us up for disappointment, frustration, resentment and strained relationships. They drain our joy and make it harder to appreciate our blessings.
So how can we push the reset button on our expectations, accept our limits, and make it through the holidays with our sanity and our marriages intact? These five steps can help:
1. Reflect on the Meaning of the Season
The first step is to get in touch with what’s most important. Set aside time to quietly reflect on the upcoming holiday season. Think about the Christmas story. What is the meaning of Christmas to you? What is the meaning you want the holidays to have for yourself and your family this year? See if you can summarize it in a word or a phrase.
2. Uncover Your Expectations
Often we aren’t aware we had unrealistic expectations until we notice how upset and disappointed we are. Expectations can easily “fly under the radar.”
So the second step is to become more aware of what our expectations actually are. It can help to make a list of all the things you plan to do this holiday season. What do you expect in terms of decorating the house, giving gifts, cooking meals or shopping? Write it down.
Pay attention to your emotions. If reality isn’t living up to our expectations, we will probably feel some degree of frustration, resentment or disappointment. We might also feel hurt, overwhelmed, depressed, lonely, angry or guilty.
Emotions are like indicator lights on the dashboard of a car – they warn us that there’s a problem. If we notice any of these feelings “lighting up” during the holidays, it’s a good indicator that we need to “look under the hood” to see if we have some problematic expectations.
Also, pay attention to your actions. Are you bickering with your spouse or constantly in a hurry? Are you neglecting important things like exercise or rest because you’re so focused on the urgent? Ask yourself: What do my actions indicate that I expect of myself? Of other people? Of God?
When I have done this step in the past, I have had to admit that I often expect myself to be Superwoman. You know Superwoman: She shops, she bakes, she cleans, she wraps; she’s the perfect hostess, the perfect guest, the perfect mother and wife, and she still looks great and volunteers at a charity in her free time!
I hate admitting it, but when I look at my list of expectations for the holidays objectively, I know that I’m setting myself up for disappointment.
3. Evaluate Your Expectations
Look over your list of the things you plan to do this season. Think realistically about your time limits, energy limits and financial limits. Ask yourself what reasonable expectations would be. Note activities that need to be adjusted or eliminated.
Think back to the word or phrase you wrote down that represents the meaning of Christmas to you. Then look again at your list. Keep activities that build connections and meet your goals. Add or change items as needed to better focus on what is most important. For example, if you bake Christmas cookies every year and it’s a fun time of togetherness with Grandma and your kids, then by all means, keep that tradition. But if you spend hours in the kitchen by yourself, consider buying store-made cookies to free up energy for more meaningful activities.
Or perhaps you want to focus on Giving, but as you look at your list, you realize that there are no family activities that involve serving the less fortunate. You might consider adding in time for your family to serve meals at a homeless shelter or buy gifts for needy children.
4. Communicate Your Expectations
Nothing sets up a couple for conflict like differing expectations that have never been discussed. If your view of buying gifts is that it’s worth spending a little more in order to give the perfect present, but your husband’s view is that it’s important to stick to a strict budget, then you’ve got some negotiating to do!
So talk together as a couple. Talk with your children. Find out what other family members expect. What traditions or activities do they like the most? What do they dislike?
In these conversations, be gentle with each other’s feelings. There are often strong emotions associated with certain traditions. Make sure you show respect for the feelings even if you’re not sure about keeping the tradition.
5. Let Go of Your Expectations
In the end, what is most important is the kind of person we are, not that all our holiday expectations were met. Be a person who can adapt. Accept the hard realities of life. Much as I hate to admit it, there’s not enough time in a day for me to accomplish everything I’d like to do. Some things won’t go as perfectly as I’d like them to. I can’t make people feel the way I want them to feel or act the way I want them to act. Some things are not in my control, and I just have to pray for the serenity to accept that fact. These are hard realities.
Allow traditions to change as your family changes. Families go through life cycles. Parents age. Children become teenagers and then adults. If we cling to expectations that our family’s holiday experience will be what it was in “the good old days,” we will inevitably be disappointed. Adapt traditions to meet the current needs of the family.
Allow yourself and your family to feel disappointment and grief. Another hard reality is that you will feel disappointment sometimes. Give people space to feel sad sometimes, even during the holidays. Don’t try to fix the feelings; don’t wallow in them. Acknowledge them. Sympathize with them.
Perhaps this is your first Christmas after the death of a loved one. That is so very difficult. It’s important at such a time to let go of expectations and accept the reality that grief will coexist with your holiday celebration this year.
Remember, having realistic expectations prepares us to better enjoy the holiday season. It helps us to cope with life as it really is, not as we wish it was. This Christmastime, when you notice feelings of resentment or frustration, when you see yourself rushing around, stop. Regroup, refocus on what’s most important, reset your expectations, and enjoy a less stressful holiday season.
Question: What do you think? What unrealistic expectations do you struggle with? You can leave a comment by clicking here.