You’re done for another year. You can put away the tree, the tinsel, the decorative napkins and put the furniture back into place. Throw the tents and sleeping bags into the back of the car with a cooler of left-over Christmas ham. You’ll stop at an orchard on your way to whichever beach or river is calling you. You’re in the safe zone – Christmas and Boxing Day done for another year.
Of course, that’s a Southern Hemisphere Christmas. But you get my point – regardless of snow or sun, there’s often a palpable sense of relief in the air once Christmas is done. So here are some strategies to help you have a considerable less stressful, angry, bitter and a more imperfect Christmas next year.
This year, our Christmas was quiet but entirely pleasant. People contributed food and drink, exchanged gifts, quality time was spent with people we love. But in the build up to the day, many of my conversations with friends revolved around the juggling acts of meeting all sorts of expectations and hopes from complex and emotionally weighty family situations.
What we don’t acknowledge regularly enough, are the ever-increasing numbers of people who experience Christmas as an annual anxiety trigger, full of non-consumer related stress and emotional trauma.
Christmas – That Myth Of Perfect.
The trouble with Christmas is not the commercial underpinnings or the trappings of food and wine that see us creeping back to the scales in shame. The trouble with Christmas, is how it perpetuates the myth of perfect.
1. Christmas gives perfect stereotypes an unfair spotlight.
I love Christmas movies but I hate the stereotypes they portray. Career girls being visited by ghosts of Christmas past to learn that family is the most important thing. Childhood sweethearts being reunited. Even the most loved and abhorred ‘Christmas’ movie ‘Love Actually’ has very little to do with Christmas and everything to do with tragic romance gone wrong. Christmas is not about romance, nor are those stereotypes realistic.
2. Christmas creates an expectation that we should be creating ‘perfect’ moments, from family dinners to carol services.
Those perfect moments come with their own set of expectations too – perfect food, perfect decorations, perfect happiness. This shallow view of happiness is ill-informed and unrealistic. The nuance of emotion that is layered into a truly happy moment will touch the spectrum of joy, sorrow and everything in between. Therefore the kind of happiness we see depicted or try to create is largely an inaccurate and unachievable kind of emotional experience.
Of course – the expectation or desire for creating something ‘perfect’ is largely only something that hinders those who have not found peace with defining their own sense of perfect.
The biggest challenge around Christmas and its myth of perfection, is the annual challenge it poses to those who are still wrestling with their own imperfection, or still seeking the ability to find perfection in the imperfect.
What’s the perfect Christmas?
It starts with acceptance that we have the opportunity to participate and create new traditions and meaningful moments by acknowledging and communicating our needs and hopes thoughtfully with one another. Not inspiring enough? A perfect Christmas is one where everybody comes openly to a shared experience and are actively involved in creating a celebration that expresses shared meaning.
Even if you have found a sense of acceptance and self-awareness within yourself thus having the ability to enjoy moments of Christmas sentiment that are uniquely perfect to yourself and your immediate family, Christmas thrusts many people and their hopes (expectations) together. Therefore, while you may find contentment, others who are seeking to ‘get it right’ in hopes of meeting their own Christmas expectations may still look to you to play a part.
Is this selfish? Is this wrong? No. It’s a natural part of human interaction but in the same way that weddings can, a shared celebration and experiences creates a set of dependencies on others to try to achieve satisfaction.
Whatever ideals you hold regarding your family and close relationships, it is nearly impossible to remove those from the way we celebrate and come together.
So where does stress, anger, frustration, emotional outburst and tension come from at Christmas? It comes from trying to meet these expectations, often relying heavily on others to do, say, make and be what we hope for. This tension of hope and expectation can squeeze our emotional and mental capacity beyond breaking point. Our hope that ‘this year will be different’ pushes against our expectation that ‘it will be the same as it was before’.
It may be you have not experienced this before, but for increasing numbers of people who come from divorced and mixed-families, those who are adjusting to the loss of partners or children, those who have suffered abuse or trauma in family relationships – this is an unspoken norm at Christmastime. Even for those away from home for the first time, Christmas takes on a significantly different shape. It can simply be overwhelming for those who are lonely at other times of the year, to experience the pronounced focus on close relationships and family during this season.
At the most basic healthy level, balancing the needs and desires of multiple family units is challenging. Making decisions about which grandparents get to see the grandkids on Christmas Day and when can be tough. But if a single person in that family has a deep emotional need to feel validated during that time – instant complication. Most tension and emotional escalation comes from a core human need – trying to get what we want, to get our needs or expectations met.
The habits of family arguments, old behaviours and our oldest vulnerabilities and insecurities flying unchecked can escalate before we have a chance to grasp hold our control of the situation. And again, this is normal. Human beings are creatures of habit, therefore choosing alternative ways of being – particularly in family units where the oldest ingrained behaviours usually begin, requires discipline and self-control.
When we fear that others will not meet our expectations or the ghosts of Christmas past raise their voices in our heads – we have a choice.
1. We choose numbness. We intentionally pull back our emotional investment so as to navigate complex situations with the least amount of stress.
2. We relent to old behaviours. There is a strange comfort and security in patterns we are at least familiar. We play our parts in arguments that we have every Christmas.
3. We reset our expectations and apply tactics to resist old behaviours. This is the hardest choice, because it requires a certain commitment to your personal emotional stores. It requires doing some internal work to rationalize what the unmet expectations and unbearable feelings around those relationships are. This requires a bunch of work, but for good reward.
So, it’s December 28th. You have 360 days, give or take a couple of days off to work on this for next year and seeing you can only work on yourself, not others – here’s a list to get you started for a less angry, bitter, stressful Christmas next year. As with most things, good communication is the start. Communicating what we need, what we want and what we hope for and then listening just as hard to all other people involved.
- Identify the insecurities and vulnerabilities that are triggered in you at this time of year.
- Spot any needs or expectations of others that you feel obliged or strive to meet each season.
- Do some work on rebalancing these – what can you do, what can’t you do to meet those expectations. Do some work on your personal insecurities – what can you do to build your esteem and strategies in the next 12 months? You’ll feel the benefits as soon as you start.
- Identify your own expectations and hopes for the Christmas season – are you hoping to feel a certain way, or have certain shared experiences. It needs to be a little more specific than ‘I just want everyone to be happy’. Ask yourself the question ‘what will that look like, or sound like?’. The answer to that question is probably closer to what you really want.
- Be realistic about how much of that you can control or influence.
- Acknowledge that no one person is likely to have all of their hopes and expectations met. Accept that you might compromise some of your own hopes in order that others might also experience fulfilment. It’s highly likely many hopes will be shared.
- Then peacefully communicate your true hopes to other people in your family. Invite them to do the same.
- If possible, find other family members who are willing to talk about new strategies and tactics for meeting some of these hopes.
Good luck. The bonus is that using this strategy will spill over benefits into many other parts of your life.