Battling Christmas Stress? Here’s my guide for navigating through the most wonderful time of the year
Christmas is a great example of how our perception and memories shape our reality. Say the word ‘tinsel’ to two people and one will widen their eyes in festive delight, whilst the other will slowly curl into a ball and start rocking. For many, Christmas creates mixed feelings. I personally have a love/hate relationship with this time of year. I love lights, mulled wine, being cosy, the anticipation or lead up to the big day and a good carol. My hates? Unrealistic expectations, pressure to appear happy and Christmas shopping.
Here are some insights that I have found to be really helpful in getting through Christmas more gracefully, with a little less stress and a little more happiness.
Expectations, expectations, expectations
Expectations around Christmas can be a major barrier to enjoying yourself. Here are a couple of examples:
- The expectation that your family will behave themselves. Our current perception of Christmas will be mostly shaped by our past experiences of it. Some of us will have deeply unhappy reference points of dysfunctional family dynamics or we may have rose-tinted memories of Mum, Dad, Granny and Grandpa showering us with love and attention and not a nasty word spoken. Whatever your family situation, many of us hope that ‘because its Christmas’ relatives will always be respectful, kind and do their fair share of the washing up. Expectations in relationships are often problematic as we’re essentially holding people up to an invisible standard that they know nothing about and then get resentful or disappointed when they don’t ‘measure up’.
- That we should be having a ‘perfect Christmas’. Of course a perfect Christmas means different things to different people (which can be another cause for family drama) but ‘perfection’ creates a great deal of pressure and anxiety. A couple of days ago a friend told me that she had given up on her idea of having a perfect Christmas and was feeling much happier as a result. I was relieved for her as perfectionism at any time of year can often create an impossible standard which you’re unlikely to meet – cue a recipe for unhappiness and feeling inadequate.
As you have probably gathered, expectations are not helpful for our festive balance. The more we take ownership of our holiday experience and let go of what ‘should’ be happening, the better.
Regain balance this Christmas
- Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not enjoying yourself. It’s okay to struggle with this time of year as many people do. Many of us feel worse about going through a personal struggle at Christmas time because commercialism and Hollywood films say its all about being happy, having a massive house, thousands of presents and the perfect family. Resisting and pushing away negative feelings only makes them stronger so just accept them for what they are, be kind to yourself and they are likely to pass through much more quickly.
- Plan your response to the things you dread. If you know your aunt is going to ask you why you’re still single or your mother-in-law criticises your outfit, know in advance what short, succinct sentence you can say to deal with it to the best of your ability and change the subject. We tend to worry less about challenges if we decide on our plan of action in advance.
- For relatives whose presence you find particularly toxic, imagine engaging your own, protective shield which allows you to see and hear what the person is saying, but allows their words to bounce off you unscathed. For some its a transparent bubble, for others its a ring of fire. Just choose whatever would cause you to feel safe and protected and notice how your response changes knowing that you can choose your response from a safe place.
- Be kind. Kindness makes us feel good, boosts our immune system and makes the world a better place to live in. Hopefully you will see clear opportunities during the holidays to show kindness to others but if not, there are some wonderful suggestions from the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. There are even some specific suggestions for the holidays.
Finally, you can choose what you want Christmas to mean to you. In the last few years I have focused more on what I want it to be about, rather than the frantic rush of what I’m told it should be. For me its a time to show love, connect and be kind to others. Focusing on these ‘big picture’ values have made the holidays a much more rewarding experience. After all, people all over the world are experiencing the highest degree of human suffering this Christmas. There is an opportunity to think about our world as we pause during the long evenings and think about what small way we can change it for the better.