I shared in my last article the stressful demands and expectations my ex had surrounding the holidays and how my life became much happier and more peaceful when shaking off those demands. The relief and joy that brings cannot be understated. It also cannot be understated the number of times and ways we manage to prevent ourselves from doing just that.
Unshackling yourself from the demands and expectations of the abuser when you no longer have to answer to them is essentially pretty simple, because you no longer have him/her creating that pressure. But what do you do when shedding those expectations becomes more about you, your guilt, your loneliness, or your need for comfort?
No More Cookie-Cutter Holidays
It took me a couple of years to redefine what I expected of myself and with the help of my therapist and some great friends, I developed some fool-proof ways to let myself enjoy the holidays without guilt or expectations. Each year is a little bit different but that’s the beauty! I no longer have cookie-cutter ideas of what the holidays “should” look like. Making some changes help you shed the expectations of ritual and conformity that can stifle your happiness. Here are some great ways to help shed expectations you may have around the holidays:
#1 Accept that, if the family you usually have holiday celebrations with is the source of your stress, the only thing you can change is you.
Instead of subjecting yourself to a full day of being miserable, announce that you have decided to give back to the community this year, so you will be spending an hour with the family then heading out to your shift at the local shelter/soup kitchen/church. Then do it. Trust me when I tell you that whatever eyebrows may be raised, they really can’t make a valid argument against you wanting to help your fellow man rather than sit in a food coma in front of the TV listening to everybody fight about politics and whether it’s called “stuffing” or “dressing.” My friends, if they are a stressful pain in the ass, they always will be. Just alter your own approach.
#2 Ask yourself the Grinch Question:
If I took away the tree, the boxes, the bows, the dinner, the decorations, and the rituals, would Christmas still come? Yes. Yes it would. Now define what you find joyful about the holidays, no matter which one(s) you celebrate, and laser focus on those parts. But a word of caution in this regard…don’t just laser focus on what you feel makes you happy if it isn’t enjoyed by all. In other words, if you like building that gingerbread house but your kids really couldn’t care less, then don’t force it. Let them decorate and eat cookies while you construct your masterpiece! If you love going to Midnight Mass but everybody else hates it, tuck them in bed and go alone if you can.
#3 Find a new thing or two that you have “always” wanted to do or try with regard to the holidays and do it!
Want to be in your neighborhood’s Tacky Lights competition? Have fun! Want to go see something you haven’t seen before? Make it happen! Want to try a winter sport, Christmas Karaoke, some fancy new recipes, or making your own ornaments? Do it! One thing I incorporated a couple of years ago was an annual visit to the National Gingerbread House Competition. This is held near where I now live and is loads of fun. I mean, who knew you could do some of this stuff with gingerbread? My girls and I spend a day seeing the houses, drinking cocoa by the huge fireplace in the hotel, and meandering through the shops.
#4 If you have children, ask them for ideas of things they think would be fun to do, then let them take the lead.
Even if their idea is to make dyed macaroni necklaces for Santa’s reindeer or make a chocolate covered oat snack and call it “reindeer poop,” you will likely have the time of your life. You will feel like a kid again, no longer constrained by adult expectations, and it will likely make some of the best memories you will ever have.
#5 Use art or journaling to redefine (or remember) what the holidays really mean for you.
You’ll be surprised at how therapeutic it is. I suck at drawing but I sat down once and drew a really awful picture of what I thought Christmas should be for me and my girls. It clarified for me what I viewed as being important and enjoyable, like our cookie decorating marathons and the faces of my girls when they get a gift they didn’t expect. What wasn’t in the picture? Fancy meals that took 6 hours to cook and 15 minutes to eat, massive amounts of “perfect” decorations, or stories about how much my girls “love” the breakneck pace of cramming every possible thing into every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some of the best times we have now are just sitting by a fire in our pajamas eating popcorn and watching It’s a Wonderful Life.
Stress and upset usually result from unmet expectations or unreasonable demands.
Really, is that the point of the holiday season? I don’t know anybody who on their deathbed said, “Yeah, I really wish I had spent the extra 3 hours in the kitchen instead of sitting on the floor playing with my kids.”
Keep things real, keep things in perspective, and remember that nothing external will ever give you the joy you really deserve.