By Sarah Parker, MDiv, MA, LMFT
It’s beginning to look a lot like. . . the holiday season. At this time of year, our senses are inundated with reminders that it is “the most wonderful time of the year.” Seasonal tunes stream from our car radios and play in the background at every store, restaurant, coffee shop, and business. Brightly colored lights illumine storefronts and houses, at times, even dancing in carefully timed synchronization to the aforementioned seasonal music. Scents of the season—spicy, nose-tingling cinnamon, the warmth and sweetness of fresh baked cookies, the fresh, outdoorsy smell of pine, fir, and spruce bring back deeply rooted memories of places and people and holidays past. And then there are the foods. . . the vast array of palate-pleasing morsels that we reserve to indulge in only once a year.
The signs are around us. . . the holidays are here. That reality can fill us with a variety of feelings. . . depression, grief, sadness, anxiety, fear, and dread as well as happiness, joy, contentment, hope, love, and peace. For many, this time of year brings up a lot of pain—the pain of loss, the pain of loneliness, the pain of brokenness. For others, it increases anxiety, as already strained resources of time and money become tighter and as we feel pressured to spend more and do more. According to studies, roughly 1/3 of us report experiencing higher levels of stress during the holidays while additionally feeling less equipped to manage our stress in healthy ways.
Maybe this is a good time to check in with yourself. How are you feeling about this season? When I ask the majority of my clients these days how they are feeling, the predominant answer I get is “tired.” Are you tired? Are you overwhelmed? Is this season adding more stress or more satisfaction? What is going on in your life that is having an impact on you?
What do we do when “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”—isn’t? Put another way, how do we manage when our experiences don’t live up to our expectations? If we enter this season with the expectation that it should be the most wonderful time, that we should be the most happy and fulfilled, and that it should be perfect and beautiful and “Norman Rockwell-esque” and that everyone should get along and feel close and connected. . . we are bound to end the season feeling disillusioned, disappointed, sad, and frustrated.
Maybe the best “first step” in addressing and managing our expectations is understanding what they are and where they come from. As you think about the holiday season—what do you expect to happen? What do you expect from yourself? What do you expect from others? And perhaps most challenging—what do you perceive that others expect from you?
Many of the expectations we have started out harmless enough—we have needs, we have dreams, we have goals. Having expectations is normal and healthy. . . they motivate us and our behavior. Expectations in the holiday season often come from memories of “seasons past”—of elements that made this time of the year memorable in the past. But it’s important for us to examine these expectations. To ask ourselves—was this element important “way back when” because of something that was going on at that time that is no longer a reality now? Is this something that was important to another family member that you feel obligated to carry on? Is this something you do. . . but don’t really enjoy or find meaning in?
Once you have taken time to examine your expectations—both those that are internal as well as those that are external—you can determine which expectations are realistic, those which are unrealistic and need to be adjusted, and those expectations that you no longer need to hold. At the same time, as you go through this assessment process, you are simultaneously prioritizing and clarifying for yourself some elements of the holidays that are “most important.”
This is also a good time to get others involved in the conversation, communicating your expectations and priorities with those whom you will be spending time with. Maybe together you can identify ways that you can prioritize and simplify and conclude the holiday season feeling less frustrated and more fulfilled. Maybe together you can honor the memories of the past without feeling chained to them for the present and future.
Sarah Parker, MA, LMFT works with LeaderWise Counseling. She has a Master’s of Divinity (MDiv) from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia; a Master's Degree (MA) in Marriage and Family Therapy from Bethel Seminary in Arden Hills; 20 years of experience in pastoral and family ministry; and 3 years providing marriage and family therapy.