By Stephanie Craig
There I sat crying in a butter-soaked shirt, holding a tired, screaming baby wondering why I ever agreed to three Christmases in one day. It was our baby son’s first Christmas, and was supposed to be a picturesque, magical day to remember. We decorated, dressed our son in his Christmas sweater, baked requested casseroles, packed thoughtful gifts, wore new clothes, and went to three family gatherings that ended in tears and feelings of overwhelm. Is this really what Christmas is supposed to be? Stressful, exhausting, overwhelming, and disappointing? Or is there another way?
Historically, Christmas and the preceding weeks were about expectations surrounding the birth of Jesus. Currently, you might find yourself juggling spiritual and cultural expectations around Christmas and other winter holidays including decorating stylishly, hosting gatherings, reflecting spiritually, going to church events, gift-giving, participating in family traditions, spending meaningful time with extended family, etc. With good intentions, you may place impossible expectations on these few weeks of the year to bring fulfillment and happy memories. Afterwards though, you could be left with the disappointing reality of hurt feelings, burnt ham, criticism from family, underwhelming responses to gifts, and kids preferring to text friends instead of playing family board games.
So, what can be done?
Five ways to De-Stress the Holidays:
• Sort your expectations into two categories: healthy and unhealthy. Healthy expectations are reasonable, gracious, encourage growth, and don’t result in shame. Unhealthy expectations are idealistic, unreasonable, perfectionistic, involve trying to control others, and result in feeling ashamed. Reducing stress begins with getting curious about what you are expecting of yourself and others. Are you trying to present a perfect image of yourself? Are you trying to get someone else to be who you want them to be? Are you trying to get an emotional need met from someone who is not likely to meet that need?
• Consider what will happen if you let your unhealthy expectations go. Most often you hold unhealthy expectations because you fear loss of control, when in reality, you didn’t really have control in the first place. Admitting that you only have control of yourself can set you free and empower you to manage yourself in healthier ways.
• Identify unhealthy expectations that others may have invited you to fulfill. Maybe you’re still seeking approval from your parents, or hustling to live up to social expectations of friends, or exhausting yourself trying to keep your kids happy. If you find yourself resenting someone, it’s often a sign that unrealistic expectations are present in the relationship.
• Set boundaries with yourself and others. Adjust unhealthy personal expectations and allow time to realize your worst fears will not be realized as a result. Try giving yourself permission to say no to unhealthy requests of others even if someone will be disappointed. They will survive the disappointment and so will you. Boundaries are usually uncomfortable initially and then all involved get used to them over time. In the long-term, such boundaries create oxygen for life.
• Decide how you will fill the space that results from letting go of unhealthy expectations. When you think about what feels healthy and meaningful around the holidays, do that and enjoy it deeply.
For us, letting go of unhealthy expectations has set us free from exhausting, expensive, perfection-oriented busyness and has created space for intentional, reflective, restful, family time on Christmas Day. The difference is astounding. What will you do to create and enjoy healthier space this holiday season?