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When Your Holidays Aren’t Flawlessly Jolly

What if instead of trying to force the holidays to fit our expectations, we accepted the experience for what it is?

If there’s any time of year loaded with expectations, it’s the holiday season. Honestly, in the past I’ve tended to be a bit of a grinch, but my attitude was primarily a poor attempt at self-protection.

With all those expectations there comes fear that the experience won’t measure up—that I won’t measure up. It can seem easier to act like I don’t care than to risk disappointment or disappointing others.

There is an idea out there that the holiday season is supposed to be magical. The house will be beautiful, spotless, and festive. The food will be plentiful, gorgeous, and delicious. The gifts will be thoughtful, splendidly wrapped, and perfect.

Everyone will be merry and overflowing with love for one another. No one will be tired or grumpy or sick or stressed. There will be no disagreements or misunderstandings. Schedules and travel plans will work out smoothly and it will be easy to visit everywhere and spend quality time with everyone.

The truth?

For most of us, the holiday season can’t live up to those expectations. It strains finances and schedules. It’s inconvenient and exhausting. Some have too many demands on their time. Others feel intensely alone.

Celebrations can sharpen the pain of loss or division. Ingrained family dynamics can trigger behaviors and emotions we thought we’d outgrown. Sometimes the belonging and connection we dream of looks more like guilt or rejection. Interactions can remind us we’re not where we wanted or expected to be in our lives. Time together can expose ways we’ve changed that our families don’t understand.

If the holiday season is hard for you for any reason, please know you’re not the only one. It can be easy to believe that everyone else’s celebrations are flawlessly jolly, but the reality is many of us struggle in one way or another.

So what do we do about the gap between our holiday expectations and our actual experience? Do we work harder to try to create the magic? Do we give up and suffer through?

What if instead of trying to force the holidays to fit our expectations, we accepted the experience for what it is?

Setting the standard at magical is a lot of pressure. It means anything less is a failure.

We can stop telling ourselves everything has to be perfect—it probably won’t be. We can stop despairing that everything will be awful—it doesn’t have to be.

What if we let this holiday season be imperfectly lovely? What if we acknowledged that this is a complicated season celebrated with complicated, messy, wonderful people?

In the following weeks I’ll share some practical ways we can prepare for and be present in the holidays this year. In the meantime, let’s examine our holiday expectations. Before we can make any changes, it helps to know what’s there.

First, make a list of the expectations you associate with the holidays. Write down anything that comes up, no matter how big or small. Include expectations you have of yourself as well as your expectations of others.

Next, ask yourself the following questions about each expectation on your list:

  • Is this a realistic expectation?
  • Does having this expectation contribute to or detract from my experience? The experience of others?
  • How does holding this expectation impact my thoughts, feelings, and actions? How would they change if I let go of this expectation?
  • What if my expectation isn’t met? What if it is?

I’d love to know more about your own holiday experiences. What do you enjoy about the holidays? What do you struggle with? What helps? What did you discover about your expectations?