Surviving the Holidays By Managing Expectations

Even you can survive the holidays if you manage your expectations and exercise a little creativity, whether you have a crazy family, a mental illness, or are just “normally” stressed.

Snowy village with white Christmas lights
What we imagine it should be. Photo by Kamala Saraswathi on Unsplash

Our lives are not Hallmark movies and we don’t have perfect families. My neighbors, for example, lost their matriarch last May, making this Thanksgiving awkward and bittersweet. Some of you might get the perfect Christmas, Hanukkah or New Year celebration, but most of us won’t. We all can, however, survive the season and move on, more or less intact, and maybe with some good memories.

It’s mostly a matter of expectations.

Do you have that difficult relative — maybe a mother-in-law — who always finds something wrong? A friend was frantically trying to get her house spic and span, plus pack for a Thanksgiving trip, and was so stressed out that her blood pressure was in the danger zone, even while on medication. When I asked why, she explained that her brother-in-law, who would be visiting when they returned, always found fault with something to tear her down.

“Who cares what he thinks?” I asked.

“I do!” she replied vehemently. She was so angry, it bordered on fury.

Two penguins facing away from each other
What really happens. Photo by Angela Hobbs on Unsplash

Sometimes we can cut the difficult people out of our lives, but more often we need to at least endure them, especially when they are family and the holidays are here. Like the cousin who always goes over the spending limit for the gift exchange just because he can and knows you can’t.

Note to yourself: it is NOT your responsibility to please the difficult people or live up to their expectations. They will never be pleased, so don’t waste your time and energy.

Perhaps you are struggling with an illness. Relatives will often pepper the sick for details. Most are just trying to make small talk, some want gossip, some genuinely care. You are under no obligation to tell them anything you aren’t comfortable talking about. This is especially difficult if you are battling cancer or a mental illness of any sort. There’s always one who will pump you with questions then discount it all as “in your head” and tell you to get over it.

Crazy looking monkey
Me this time of year. Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

Speaking of mental illness, the holidays are an especially tough time for depression. It’s amazing anyone gets through them unscathed. If the shorter days and lousy weather (in the Northern Hemisphere) don’t get you, then the saccharine movies, commercials, and cacophony of voices shouting, “buy, buy, buy!” will.

  • Buy a new car, you deserve it!
  • Get your kids the latest game console/merchandised doll/hottest toy!
  • Your phone is (gasp!) a year old — here’s the newest!

And if you don’t have the money, or the family, or the significant other to lavish expensive jewelry on, then you aren’t good enough.

  • How could you get laid off just before the end of the year?
  • What do you mean it’s either food or electric?
  • You’re alone for the holidays?! (Subtext: What’s wrong with you.)

Reality: Even having all those things wouldn’t “fix” you or anyone else. The best way to lick depression is to work it through with self-care, a trusted counselor and/or a licensed therapist, with our without medication as the depth and duration dictate.

It comes back again to expectations.

Let’s return to my friend with the blood pressure problem. She was so angry, she couldn’t see that she was really angry at herself: she had her own unrealistic expectations she could never hope to reach. And it was killing her.

What are your unrealistic expectations?

Maybe you aren’t where you think you ought to be in your career. Perhaps you feel like you should be making more money than you are. Or you feel like you’ve got to prove to your family that you’re as good as that sister who became a doctor, while you drive a bus. These kinds of thoughts are what a professor of mine called the Oughttas, Gottas and Shouldas.

Yeah, in the end, most of our unrealistic expectations come from judging ourselves against impossible standards.

So, now what? How do I propose survival?

Sweater girl drinking from mug
Let’s have a talk. Photo by Isaac Castillejos on Unsplash

Here are some practical tips, tried and true, that I am passing on to you, like an old granny to her grand-child heading out into the world.

Turn off the television.

Now. At least 20 minutes of every commercial television show is advertising, trying to bilk you of your hard-earned money to keep up with — or put to shame — the Joneses. That doesn’t even account for the show content of unrealistic story lines with unrealistic characters. Instead, listen to music, or an audio book, or maybe just the world around you. Did you notice the birds on the roof across the alley?

Prepare yourself ahead of time.

Chuck the unrealistic expectations out the door. Don’t let anyone else try to lay them on you, either.

Feeling fragile? Write some affirmations on small cards (like old business cards) and take them with you to the big event. Take a bathroom break to read them when it gets too much.

If you know that abusive uncle is going to be present, ask the hostess ahead of time to seat you somewhere else. Failing that, remind yourself that you are strong, you are a survivor, and say “No,” firmly to anything untoward.

When someone asks those intrusive questions, ignore the question and ask them one about themselves. Most people love to talk about themselves and their interests!

Determine your limit and stick to it.

We always hear about this when it comes to money, but it affects time, too. For example, my hairdresser decided that she didn’t have time to cook for Thanksgiving this year. She chose to bring the paper plates and cutlery instead. “But you always cook,” family members said. “Not this time,” she replied, and stuck to it.

We also need to budget our emotional time. I recall a New Year’s Eve party I attended when in my early 40s. I accompanied my housemate to this party for singles at a small home, attended by 20 or so people. After about 90 minutes, I felt my face flush and started to sweat. I dashed out the front door into the cool night, gasping for breath and shaking. It was a panic attack. I had over-spent my budget for close-quarter stranger interaction.

I don’t often have panic attacks, but I have been known to go for a walk after dinner to get away from the bickering and blustering, or just to get some fresh air to breathe.

Another trick is to join the kids.

Playing with the kids can bring the kid out in you, and you can laugh and be silly with them and ignore the stupid grownups. This is especially fun when gifts have been opened, or the kids have been told to go outside — go with them.

Be the best self you can be in each moment and carry your head high.

One thing I’ve learned is that most people don’t even realize all the stuff you’re going through, because they’re too busy in their own world. Do You, and let the others make fools of themselves if they wish. That’s their problem.


Dazed or crazy cat
Is it over yet? Photo by Marko Blažević on Unsplash

And when it’s all over, celebrate the victories and don’t beat yourself up about the mistakes. (We’re all human.) Have an “after party” just for you. Treat yourself to a movie, or weekend away, or day in the park, or library day, or spa day, or game day — whatever is a special treat for you within your monetary, time and emotional budgets. You survived!

Finally, remember: your worth isn’t predicated on anyone else’s opinion. You owe no one an apology for being yourself. You are loved as you are.

I wish you peace in the chaos and grace to move forward.

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