With Thanksgiving just under two weeks away, we are truly at the starting gate of the holiday season. Actually, if you are hosting the celebration, you may feel the holiday is already underway. Just spending time at a grocery store will certainly tell you that something is in the air. And in the aisles. So like it or not, we have reached another holiday season.
This season can be a wonderful time to reconnect with family and friends, spend time together, and actually sit down for a meal at the same table. That’s something doesn’t always happen in a nuclear family, much less an extended family. So if it is such a great time of year, why do I hear so many people say they can’t wait until it’s over and things get back to normal?
Let’s face it, most of us already have too much on our plates (yes, pun intended) as it is. Adding the additional expectations for the holidays–entertaining, baking, gift choice and buying, mailing, parties, traffic, crowds, well the list goes on and on–can quite frankly be more than some people can handle. So how can we get through the season without breaking down or stressing out?
There are lists of ways to cut down on stress at the holidays. Set a budget, have pot luck parties to share responsibility, avoid alcohol and over indulging in sweets, shop online to avoid crowds. All these suggestions are valuable and helpful, but there are a couple of things we can do that more appropriately address some of the intrinsic causes of holiday stress.
Most of us have an idea of what the holidays should look like. These ideas may come from family traditions, maybe even from generations of them. Perhaps there was a certain year that sticks in our minds, when as a child everything seemed perfect. Every year after, as an adult, we may try to recreate that year. It might be simpler than that–Hollywood and Madison Avenue may have determined what we consider to be a perfect holiday season. However we get there, most of us have a vision of what the perfect holiday would look like.
The problem, of course, is that perfection is highly overrated. No matter how hard we try, chances are we will not be able to live up to an ideal scenario. And that causes a lot of internal stress. We may not even be aware that we are expending so much energy trying to create the perfect dinner, or set the perfect table, or decorate the perfect tree. All we know is we are tired, cranky, irritable, and ready for the season to end before it begins.
Once we recognize that we are focusing more on a ideal than a reality, we can actually give ourselves permission to relax and enjoy the holidays. Realize that everything on your to-do list may not get done. Take some time and decide what is most important for you to enjoy the holidays. Is making the season memorable contingent upon have a spotless house or perfect decorations for the party? Or is it more about spending time with the people at that party? Does the menu have to be out of Gourmet magazine? Are your guests or your family judging you on your hors-d’oeurves? Maybe, but my guess would be probably not.
Once we allow ourselves to accept that our holidays don’t have to be perfect, we eliminate a great deal of negative self-talk and self-judgement. And that is a good thing, especially if you happen to be a Type-A personality. So before the festivities begin, take some time and set boundaries for your expectations. If you can be mindful of what you can realistically accomplish this season, and identify what is truly important to you for the holidays, you can stop trying to create something that does not exist and enjoy what is actually in the moment.
Another way to reduce intrinsic stress is to take Thanksgiving at a literal level and count your blessings. Each night for a week think of three things you are grateful for, and write them down. Review the list daily as it grows. I’ve discussed this exercise before, but it is a powerful tool in creating a positive attitude and building authentic happiness and as such deserves repeating. It’s a little bit harder to be stressed out in traffic when you can easily touch on three things you are grateful for. Studies in positive psychology show that people who practice this exercise are happier and less stressed than control groups. More importantly, this positive attitude has been found to have remain for up to six months after the study, so it is definitely worth a try.
So if you are one of those people who are just waiting for the holidays to be over, you may want to think about reviewing personal expectations and counting your blessings. Who knows, if you change your attitude and expectations, you may just have yourself the happiest holidays yet. And that could be the best gift you receive all year.