We all know the power of habit, particularly the strength of the “tapes” that run in our heads even when the abuser is gone, they can cause holiday stress

We all know the power of habit, particularly the strength of the “tapes” that run in our heads even when the abuser is long gone. After years of hearing these messages, they become assimilated by your own thought patterns and frequently override any other rational or evidence-based thoughts. It amazed me how those messages survived in my head even years after I was the master of my own world, making a life for me and my girls.

The Hunt for Perfection

As I mentioned in my article last month about changing traditions, the demands and expectations put on me by Captain Crazy were always about his idea of how to present the “perfect” family to the world. Sometimes this included hosting fabulous parties. Sometimes it was about looking amazing at church. Occasionally, it was about traveling and looking like the image of wealth and esteem to his poor and sickly dysfunctional family. The thing is, my parents did put on that great holiday bit. It wasn’t ever perfect, but it was always fun. Even though my dad was sick for 15 years, holiday seasons were always fun and lively and a big deal. We had family around, many gifts and decorations, baking traditions, and every other year we’d host the most fabulous New Year’s Eve party crammed into our tiny home. While our life as a family was far from perfect, the holidays were always a time of joy and activity. I don’t know what my mom’s motivation was, but I know my dad was just a lunatic about Christmas.

So it came as a shock once I was married to Captain Crazy that he expected me to execute incredible, Martha Stewart-like feats around every holiday and birthday. In fact, one year he wanted to have a spectacular Christmas party to which we invited mostly people he worked with. Back then, I had no clue how strongly he was disliked by his co-workers. I had invitations custom printed, I decorated our new home from stem to stern, and baked for weeks, freezing my goodies as I went along. It was the one and only time in my life I made a Croquembouche, straight out of Martha’s Christmas book…except mine had to be 3 feet tall. I dressed in an evening gown to host his co-workers and bosses. Only 3 people, of more than 50 invited, showed up.  And I was blamed.

How to Change the Music

Since freeing myself and my girls from those expectations and the fact that they sucked the joy out of our experiences, I’ve learned 3 very powerful ways to replace those “stress tapes” with “joy tapes.”

Do what you really, truly enjoy and forget all the rest.

Do you love cooking the giant meal? Then do it! Create the menu you want, try new things, relish your time in the kitchen, give the gift of a beautiful meal or treats. If it exhausts you or is unfulfilling, then by all means…purchase your baked goods elsewhere, order a pre-made meal from a butcher or supermarket, or make reservations for a lovely dinner out. If you really despise spending hours wrapping your gifts, then embrace the beauty of a well-chosen gift bag and tissue combo. Parties not really your thing? Make a donation to the local food bank for what you would’ve spent on party food and send a lovely card to friends saying that you’ve chosen to make a donation on behalf of those you would’ve entertained. There are no other rules besides focusing on what you find fun and rewarding.

Listen to others’ traditions and see if there are any you’d like to try.

I remember being a kid and hearing other families’ holiday traditions and thinking many were just odd! Now I think it’s an adventure to explore other possibilities. My girls and I have tried serving the homeless on a holiday, opening presents then watching a movie marathon in our jammies, joining dear friends for their large and raucous celebration, and going to a movie opening on Christmas day. The coolest thing is, we don’t have to do the same thing each year. Some things are consistent, like going to church on Christmas Eve and making fresh cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. But the fun part is that each year, everything else is up for grabs. What an incredible stress reliever!

Keep yourself grounded by focusing on what will matter later.

Is anybody going to have their life altered by the fact that you didn’t make 27 dozen cookies? Nope. Will it matter in the long run if you cooked 6 side dishes or 4? Not a chance. Is the apocalypse coming because you didn’t wrap all your gifts perfectly with coordinating trim and tags? No way. What will matter is the amount of laughter, the freely given love, the meaning experienced by the connections made as part of the holiday season. I don’t remember what I got for Christmas the year I turned 8, but I do remember watching my dad out the window in the early morning darkness awaiting the garbage collectors so he could give them their Christmas gifts.

Let Go of Stress, Give In to Joy

Don’t allow anyone else’s expectations or demands, even if not stated, rule how you celebrate with those you love. Because we have learned so many “rules” through repetition and fear, it’s a hard task to reprogram those mental tapes. The biggest factor determining your success at replacing “stress tapes” with “joy tapes” is your willingness to refuse to believe those messages anymore. If you are running hither and yon, worrying, strategizing, scheduling every moment, just stop.

That’s not the point.

The point of the holiday season is to focus on the things that give you joy…your family or family of choice, your faith, your friends, your community. Find your happy and refuse to allow anything to dictate another agenda.

Whatever holiday you celebrate, may it be full of joy and peace and love,

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Aubrey Cole

Aubrey Cole

I survived a quarter century of psychological, emotional, economic and sexual abuse. When I got out, I vowed to help others do the same and founded the Emotional Abuse Survivors Network project in 2012. Now, I offer hope and healing to others on their journey as they rediscover themselves. My forthcoming books, Bodies in the Basement and Define Winning, chronicle my experiences, escape, and recovery. There is nothing so special about me that others can't emerge and thrive.
Aubrey Cole

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We all know the power of habit, particularly the strength of the “tapes” that run in our heads even when the abuser is gone, they can cause holiday stress

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