For many of us, the holidays are a time of laughter, excitement, and nostalgia. As the weather becomes cool and our homes begin to sparkle with the lights of the season, it is no wonder that our enthusiasm begins to grow. But, as we make plans to travel home, or have our in-laws out to see us, many are confused by the increasing stress that often lurks under all the holiday excitement.
So what happened to our youthful view of the holidays? Why are they now so stressful?
High Expectations: In our rushed and busy lives, many of us desperately need something to look forward to. After months and months of stress, we often want to just close our eyes, and remember a time and place that was just innocent and pure. And in doing so, we put extremely high expectations for this one day to make everything better.
The In-Laws: Even in the most flexible and welcoming family system, entering a new family is hardly ever easy. While we may have a lot in common with our spouse or partner, often we can feel forced to spend time with people that we would never chose to engage if it were not for our significant other.
Our Family: Often in our idealized view of the holidays, we also create an idealized view of our families. Unresolved conflicts and annoying personality quirks are easily forgotten as we plan for this special time. But all to often, we find that we quickly remember exactly why we may only visit every few months. During this time, it is easy for us to fall into old family roles where parents act like “the parents” and grown children feel like they are 17 again.
So How Can We Overcome the Holiday Stress?
Adjust Our Expectations: Through my experience of working with families, I have yet to come across one that is anywhere close to perfect. All of us are full of flaws, insecurities, and funny idiosyncrasies. That is not to say that harmful behaviors should not hurt us, but is to emphasize that we can set ourselves up for disappointment when we hope for perfection.
Practice the Art of Gratitude: In our disappointment with the holidays, it is easy for our thoughts to begin to spiral to the negative and cause us to miss out on the positive experiences that still exist with our families and in-laws. Practicing gratitude does not mean that we deny the places where we feel hurt, but it does mean that we pay attention to the good that still exists. This is an important way to keep a balanced perspective.
Practicing the Art of Love: I don’t know about you, but I often dream about the moment when I get to tell that person that has been hurting me the cold, hard, honest, brutal truth about how they have been wrong and exactly how they need to change. And then I often dream about how in the midst of my rant, they will suddenly look up, with a moment of clarity, and apologize calmly for all that they have been and done…BUT, let’s face it, that never seems to work, does it? In reality, this way of confronting someone only seems to make people more set in their ways and justified in their mind. It is remarkable how amendable and open people can be when they first feel loved and safe in their relationship with you. Again, practicing the art of love does not mean brushing hard issues under the rug. Instead, it means that when we genuinely love someone and allow ourselves to be vulnerable with them, this sets the stage for them to hear our hurt and pain. There is no better time to reconcile than the holidays!