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During this holiday season I have noticed the tension of many (including myself) ramping up. The Thanksgiving pre and post meal evaluations have come and gone followed closely by the traditional holidays of Hanukkah, Kwanza and Christmas. A consistent theme relating to holiday stress is the expectations connected to each event. The higher the expectation, the larger the chance for disappointment if people, situations, or gifts don’t line up with what we envision. The interesting thing about disappointment related to the holidays is that we often repeat the same cycle year-after-year. Researchers call this rut “poor psychological satisfaction”. It is as if the hope and optimism that help us succeed in other areas of life sabotage the days leading up to our favorite holiday events. The resulting emotions are frustration and increased irritability. With these challenges in mind, I thought I would offer a few quick tips to help with setting expectations for yourself and your family this holiday season.

  • Remember that happiness, like all emotions, is a passing experience. Shoot for pockets of happy moments throughout the week, and don’t set impossible standards of ongoing happiness for yourself or others. Make space for negative emotions to come up and then let them pass. By allowing your emotions to come and go naturally, you are more likely to find a place of contentment rather than constantly trying to force feelings to meet expectations.
  • Choose experiences over things. Research shows that people prefer shared experiences together more than items they are given. You probably remember your last vacation better than what you got for Christmas last year. Even if you can recall the gift, chances are you value connected time together more. I remember a Christmas when I was around 12-years-old and had been hinting about the Normandy Rose jeans that I desperately wanted. Imagine my disappointment when instead I received a pair of snow skis. Not only did I not ask for snow skis, I had no desire to ski! What my parents knew was teaching me to ski and spending that time together would create a lasting memory. So although the gift was less than satisfying, the experience that Christmas and many to come was wonderful.
  • Stop comparing! Or if you prefer to look at things through a positive lens, choose gratitude over comparison. Most of our unmet expectations start with comparisons that then lead to dissatisfaction. It may be the toys other kids are getting, or the trip someone is taking, or the entertaining that others enjoy, or the decorations in the neighborhood. Looking for inspiration is healthy. Rating yourself in comparison to others during the holiday season will likely lead to a let down.

By shifting your focus away from “shoulds” and “musts” during the holiday season, you will find that your frustration levels will decrease. Decide to make peace with the real rather than obsess over the ideal and see what happens. Then, try keeping these practices going into the new year as they are helpful strategies that have been shown to lead to increased happiness whatever the time of year.

Written by:

Sonia Combs, Licensed Mental Health Counselor.