Have Less Frazzle, and More Dazzle This Holiday Season.
Holidays. The annual, breathless whirl of go-go socializing, shopping, cooking, decorating, wrapping — all building up to the gleeful spree of giving and receiving. It’s the time of year when we come together, and try to make special, memorable moments with the most cherished people in our lives.
For many of my coaching and counseling clients, it’s the most important time of the year. Special outfits are bought. Pictures are taken. Gatherings are organized. People are paying huge amounts of money to fly around through precarious weather, just to be together. If we’re lucky, we can also use this season as an opportunity to reconnect with the sacred heart of our spirituality. We don’t just want it to be pretty and fun, we want it to be meaningful.
Getting ready for the season of special togetherness is kind of a big deal. In order to orchestrate magical moments that echo in memory years after the event, we need to prepare. Because you know what your children don’t: Magical elves are not coming to your rescue. Making the holidays special is a lot of damn hard work.
So we decorate, we bake, we craft, we shop. We plan outings, and blow up air mattresses for the overflow of guests. We attempt to create meaningful moments. We take a deep breath and throw open our doors to family members who may ordinarily be held at arm’s length (and for a good reason).
We go into the season hopeful that we can make this holiday a good one. Maybe the best ever.
But with all the joy and fun comes unique challenges. How do you deal with family members that make you crazy? How do you manage the flood of things that must be done? How do you make this time of year meaningful, and special, while not becoming a stressed-out wreck in the process?
Here are some tips to help make your holidays meaningful, less stressful, and more fun:
1) Choose Experiences Over Stuff.
Are visions of Pinterest-inspired sugarplums dancing in your head? Are you getting excited about ideas for interesting table settings as you flip through the Martha Stewart Magazine at the grocery checkout? It’s hard not to — there are SO many fun, cute, special things that you could do for your friends and family.
Things to make. Things to buy. Things to give. Things, things, things.
Remember that, at the end of the day, no one remembers the things. It’s not about the decor. It’s not about the perfectly decorated cookies or the handmade ornaments. This isn’t a crafting contest. It’s about having the opportunity to show the people you care most about that you love them, in a way they can feel.
Memories are seared into our brains through emotionally heightened experiences, not stuff. People remember experiences, and the way that they feel while they’re having them. And that’s what you really want, right?
Instead of putting so much of your time and energy into physical objects, put your energy into doing things with people with the emphasis being on having a good time. The details don’t matter. Just laugh and be happy with people you love.
So put the glue gun down, abandon the idea that you’re going to make 36 hand-painted tins in which to gift your homemade peanut brittle, and get some sleep. When you wake up refreshed in the morning, start thinking about something fun you can do with your family that everyone will enjoy — including you.
2. Tame Your Inner Perfectionist By Getting Clear About Your Priorities.
Here’s the deal: You only have so much time and energy, and it’s not like life stops during the holidays. We still have to show up to work on time, appropriately dressed, and with mascara on. We have to write contracts, meet with clients, feed children, and interact civilly with our spouses. Showers still need to be taken, and gas tanks filled. Holiday activities are an addition, not an exception. No one gets a pass to stop going to work just because they want to bake cookies.
Unless you were one of those people who had the holiday-crafty glue gun fired up by mid-October, you simply cannot take care of all of your usual responsibilities, your kids, yourself, and still make everything look like a photo spread in a magazine.
Perfectionism can distort our expectations, and make things that we would like to have feel like things we need to do. Remember that you don’t. My life-coaching clients find amazing relief when they can achieve the perspective that what “must be done” is almost entirely subjective and arbitrary. We get to decide what we “need” to do, and what we would like to do. In my experience, people who have frantic levels of stress over the holidays are often getting tricked into believing that the things they want to do are actually things they must do.
If you’re feeling stressed about everything that must be done, a great strategy is to make two columns on a sheet of paper and organize your tasks into “Need To” and “Want To.” The “Need To” column may include things like: Sleep, feed the children, shower, go to the Christmas Pageant, buy and wrap presents for immediate family. The “Want To” column may include things like “Hang 5k feet of Christmas lights, host the neighborhood block party, hand knit 6 scarves to give as gifts, have a children’s Christmas-Craft party for the entire grade, and prepare hand-decorated mason jars of homemade candy for everyone in my office.”
Schedule time to do everything you genuinely need to do first, and then see how much time you actually have left over to take on board “Want To’s.” Trimming that “Want To” list, based on the reality of how much time and energy you really have, is the path to a peaceful holiday. Because if you sincerely believe that the “Want To list” is what you have to do, then just go ahead and stop sleeping in October.
Chasing perfection always results in feelings of guilt and inadequacy. If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, it’s a better strategy to focus on two or three priorities that matter to you the most (organizing a party or buying presents for the children) and be willing to say no, compromise, or delegate the rest.
3. Remember That You Can Only Control Yourself.
Holidays bring lots of family togetherness. Sometimes this is happy, but sometimes it’s stressful. This is particularly true if you feel obligated to spend time with people who tend to trigger your negative emotions or bring out the worst in you.
If you’re heading into potentially challenging family situations, the most critical thing you can do to stay sane is to expect people to be who they are, and decide not to be shocked, outraged, or hurt when they do what they usually do. If your mother-in-law is typically dramatic and manipulative, expect that she’s probably going to be that way over the holidays too. If your brother has substance abuse problems, he is probably going to drink too much. If your sister often side-swipes you with passive aggressive comments, then you’re almost certainly going to have a few poison darts tossed in your direction at some point over the holidays. In short: The things that usually happen are going to happen over the holidays, and you have no control over any of it.
What you CAN control, is you. You get to decide who YOU want to be during these situations, and how you respond to any of the above does have an impact on how things will unfold. Deciding in advance how you are going to manage yourself during difficult moments — in a way that feels both healthy to you, and minimizes the potential for open conflict or disaster — is key to handling potentially stressful family situations.
For example, if you decide in advance that you are going to be patient and gracious, you’ll be much better able to tolerate your father-in-law’s political diatribe or your sister-in-law’s gossip. Remember that this visit is temporary. Nothing is going to get “hashed out” or resolved. You are simply there for the moment, and you will behave well, and then you will leave. You don’t have to become emotionally reactive. You get to decide how you feel, and what you do.
Having a positive intention for your own behavior creates a roadmap that you can follow through all kinds of situations — both diffusing negative ones and enhancing positive ones. If your conscious intention is to have a fun holiday with your kids, you are essentially deciding in advance to be more playful, more relaxed, and less snappy and critical towards them.
The key is remembering that you can’t control other people, you can only control yourself. And when you decide to handle interpersonal situations positively in advance, you are more likely to behave well. Your positivity diffuses conflict, and you’ll have a better experience with the people around you (because they will have more positive reactions toward you).
4. Know Your Limits, and Be Prepared To Set Boundaries.
Our homes often turn chaotic during the holidays, with the influx of presents and decorations and people. That can have a negative impact on your state of mind and emotional well-being, particularly if order and time alone are important to you.
Remember that you don’t have to experience the holidays in the same way that other people do. Everyone has their own truth. Some people are energized by all the hustle and bustle and decorations and stuff. They experience the overflow of presents and decorations and people as the dessert-buffet of a rich and full life. Other people feel anxious and overwhelmed in the same situations, and experience holiday guests as intrusions and decorations as clutter. They may prefer quiet, spiritually-focused solitude.
You have the right to set healthy boundaries, and not force yourself into situations that make you feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed.
The key is to know yourself. Are you a minimalist who is environmentally sensitive? If so, figure out in advance what you’re comfortable with having in your home and what you’re not. This gives you the power to be the gate-keeper of your environment, so you can at least quarantine whatever is “too much” into a pre-designated area so where you’re not feeling victimized by it. If your kid is bringing home decorations and toys and crafts from school, they might be just as pleased to have them in their room instead of in the main living area.
And of course, if you love the noisy, chaotic, spangled mess of the holidays… throw open the door!
I hope that these tips help you have a happy, less-stressful time this holiday season.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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