Every holiday season, I enter Thanksgiving with the best of intentions. I always have this strong desire to spend more time with my family, capture moments of real joy, and appreciate the many blessings I so often take for granted. Unfortunately, I usually get stuck somewhere along the way feeling stressed by the realities of my pressure filled life. Even though it is “The Holidays”, I still have to deal with difficult relationships, I still have to manage a hectic schedule, and I still have to do life in a broken world. After talking with clients in my clinical office over the course of the last several years, I’ve realized I’m not alone. Most of us struggle to manage this season because of a deep disconnect between what the holidays actually are and what we want them to be. We want to live out the Norman Rockwell picture of a happy family who sits around smiling at one another as the perfect turkey is set on the table. We get our family, with all their strengths and weaknesses, sitting around our dining room table playing out all our old issues. We want to experience the joy of the season and focus on what really matters. We get a mixed bag of emotions where we sometimes feel stressed by all that is required of us just to make it to January 1st. We want…perfection. We get…real life. So how can we shed some of the discontent that comes from unrealized expectations and experience the joy and gratitude we want during the holidays?
1. Choose gratitude over discontent.
Giving thanks and expressing gratitude begins with a mental focus that chooses to acknowledge the beauty of your everyday life. Yes, this holiday season will not be perfect, but it will bring moments in which you can pause and focus on something that has gone well. The best way to reap the benefits of gratitude is to notice new things you’re grateful for every day and to make sure you get specific when you are practicing gratitude. While you might always be thankful for your family, just writing “I’m grateful for my family” day after day doesn’t keep your brain on alert for fresh grateful moments. Get specific by writing “Today my son actually said thank you after we finished dinner” or “my wife gave me a back rub for 5 minutes on the porch”. And be sure not to miss the great stuff right in front of you. Look for ways to see beauty even in the everyday aspects of your life: a sunset, the smell of a fresh baked pie, a smile from the clerk at Publix can all be satisfying and something to be grateful for. It might be fun for you and your family to make a game out of noticing new things each day. Try having each member of the family write out one thing they are grateful for each day and put it in a jar on the counter. Sometime around the new year, get together and read all the notes over dinner. You might be surprised at how many things you were grateful for as a family!
2. Choose peace over anger and resentment.
Whether you have an ongoing issue with your family or particular family members, or you are feeling beaten down by the year that has passed, it is important to check your anger and resentment at the door. Now is the time to focus on forgiveness and peace rather than on giving other people what they deserve. With family especially, many of us feel compelled to “be honest” with other people because we “love them too much to let them live in error.” Yeah, that kind of thinking is code for “I’m going tell you exactly what I think because I know better and you need to listen to me.” It’s basically a toxic thought process that will yield a fruitless effort to try to fix everyone around you. Instead, be a peacemaker who talks less and listens more. Make a concerted effort not to fix anyone’s politics, or relationships, or decision making and simply listen without judgment. The holidays are not the time to try to change anyone. Your only job is to love other people and treat them the way you want to be treated.
If you are serious about being a peacemaker, try to focus everyone on the good memories you have shared together. The one thing we all have in common with most of our relatives is shared history. Bring out the photo albums and scrapbooks. Share the stories of good times and happy days. Add more joy to the gathering by remembering the good ole days.
3. Choose to be yourself over the person others expect you to be.
Sometimes our discontent during the holidays is driven by a deep disappointment that we have not been able to meet everyone else’s expectations for us. Out of good intention, we try to be at all the parties, attend all the family functions, buy the perfect gifts, and generally please everyone around us. After all, it’s the holidays. We wouldn’t want to make anyone unhappy. The only problem with this strategy is that we do things we don’t truly want to do and end up feeling resentful towards others and personally unfulfilled. Instead of trying to be who you think you “should” be with your family and friends, just relax and draw good healthy boundaries. When we let go of trying to please everyone and we’re able to be true to ourselves, we create a genuine sense of freedom and peace. This also means we need to think about what would be fun for us and our immediate family to do for holidays, and communicate this to everyone else (in-laws, extended family, etc.), even if it may upset or disappoint some of the people involved.