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The Joys and the Blues of the Holidays: 10 Tips

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Stress » Featured Article

By Elke Zuercher-White, Ph.D., ABPP

Elke Zuercher-White, Ph.D., ABPP

1. Expectations, Expectations, Expectations

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year, this time of the year is heavily loaded with big holidays, one after the other. These are joyous times, holy, fun, a time for families, relatives, and friends to come together. Families are expected to bond again, one member to appreciate the other, to relax, to share these important days, to eat, and be merry.

However, when the expectation of how "a family should be" takes precedence over how your family actually is, the more likely that it turns into a big disappointment, if not a fiasco. The image of how it "should" is thus not helpful.

Focus on your own contribution to the holiday events. Are you trying to be joyful and show others you care, ask others with genuine interest how they are? We cannot control others, only our own demeanor. Capitalize on that. Try to be flexible and have a positive outlook without getting locked into the expectations.

2. "I Want Everything to be Perfect"

Many people, and perhaps primarily mothers/wives, but also others, will spend endless hours preparing for the holidays: cleaning, decorating, making guest lists, shopping for food, shopping for presents, cooking, etc. It is totally understandable that we want to put out effort to make the events beautiful and pleasant. Up to a point, that is common and fine.

Yet the more effort is put into it all having to be perfect, the easier it is to build up - again - expectations of how it should all turn out. Excessive attempts at controlling the setting brings often the illusion that all should then go a certain way. Also, implicitly, if not explicitly, the person might think, "I want everyone to be happy." This thought assumes erroneously that we can make others happy when in reality we cannot.

Don't overdo the preparations beyond your reasonable limits. Do what you can. Remember, you are setting the stage for people to be able to enjoy themselves if they are capable and willing to do so. As far as other people's happiness, leave that burden to each one of them.

3. Celebrating the Spirit of the Holidays

When we keep in the forefront of our minds what we are celebrating, we do better. Thanksgiving bears a wonderful concept of gratitude toward the bounties we have and to the earth and soil that feed us. Christmas and Hanukkah are big religious holidays, and it behooves us to enjoy the spiritual aspects of them. New Year opens the door to a whole upcoming new year with its promises and hopes.

And for those who may not be very religious, even atheists, there should be a place to simply share the traditions. It should be possible for everyone to celebrate as best they can.

Be mindful not to preach to those who are less religious than you are. Keep your faith close to your heart; be modest around others. Let your faith be revealed in your actions rather than your words (unless you are preaching at a congregation, where this is your role). That way you make space for everyone around the table.

4. Gift Giving - In Moderation!

Most people share gifts during the holidays. These can be ways to share someone's love, care, consideration, a way to express generosity. Invariably, sometimes parents give their child an expensive gift, be it a computer, a set of skis, etc., or a spouse gives the other partner something substantial.

It is a problem when people go overboard: children who are overwhelmed by toys and other items, you going into debt to give presents. Yet others may equally expect gifts regardless of your economic situation. It is not helpful to pretend to be better off than you are. These are hard economic times for many people.

Whether in the eyes of a child or an adult, it is much healthier to be realistic about where you actually are. Pay your bills first: rent, mortgage, utilities, etc. Then see how much you can spend on gifts. Do not go into debt for half a year or so in order to pay off the gifts. The cost of the present should not count as much as the thought. If you are strapped, consider giving a card, a craft you made, something you cooked, or a gift within your actual means. If you are a recipient of a smaller gift, be grateful for the gesture. The less you expect large, expensive gifts, the more you can joyfully receive what comes.

5. Small Slights That Happen

Even when the family gets along in principle and the celebration is smooth, much goes on during these times - more the larger the group - and it is too much to expect that it all will go seamlessly. After all, people are not perfect in their communication and can be unpredictable.

If during a conversation something uncomfortable but minor is said, ask yourself if it was meant with hurtful intent and if you can let go of it. Being assertive is definitely desirable, but we do not have to respond to every single minor slight that comes our way.

6. Does Someone Want an Update or Wants to Grill You?

You may see some relatives infrequently. It is perfectly normal to ask and be asked, "What have you been up to?" It is likewise usually fine to give an update - in great detail if you want to do so.

However, let's say you have not had the best year - even if partly because of poor choices you have made. When someone inquires, you are not obligated to give all information just because they ask. Keep in mind that you are in full charge of how much and what information you share.

You do not necessarily have to get defensive and justify yourself and your actions, or lie, or pretend that things were great when they were not. As an example, let's say you have been working just a few hours or taken one college class. If you want to share that much, fine. If the inquirer makes a comment to the effect that it is not much, you may answer matter-of-factly, "You are right!" and end the conversation at that point. You can also choose to say, "I have been dealing with some issues but don't want to go into what they are. Considering all, I am where I am at. Now I just want to celebrate and enjoy this day."

7. Is Someone Out to Criticize You? It CAN Happen!

Sometimes people approach you with what initially seems a well-meaning demeanor. They ask about you and it all seems to be smooth. "What have you been doing?" "How many classes have you been taking?" "Have you gotten a job promotion?"

Then it turns, "You mean you are still doing _____ ?" "You are only _____ ?" Watch out for words like "still," "only." Maybe the words are not very revealing, but your gut tells you, this person is one way or another wanting to capitalize on your weakness, or on what is not perfect in your life.

Give only the information you want and end the conversation soon. You might sort of agree without agreeing: "It seems so, doesn't it?" If needed, excuse yourself politely and just go and do something else. Sometimes you can think of come-backs that are not mean, but tell it as it is: "You seem to want to show how much better you are/your life is than me/mine." And end the conversation.

8. And Amidst the Festivities, A Blow-Up

Two or more people may get into an argument, raise voices, cry, storm out; it can get ugly. Try not to be one of the players. Pay attention to communication patterns. Can you recognize quickly (if you happen to hear) how things turn?

If it does not involve you, do you need to hang around the area? Can you politely and unobtrusively go to another room, even if needed leave the house? Consider giving yourself an out so as not to end up feeling worse by witnessing more ugly scenes.

9. "I Can't Enjoy the Holidays Because They Weren't Good During My Childhood"

Most of us carry memories that have good and bad elements, certainly also about the holidays. And many of us can enjoy a new holiday.

But sometimes we get stuck, stuck in the past. We mourn forever what was not then. From the bad things in the past we think we are doomed never to enjoy the holidays.

Much depends on our frame of mind. If our lives are better now than they were in the past, is that not cause for celebration? As adults, we are lucky to have more control than we did as children. We are less at the mercy of those past circumstances; instead, we help create our current and future circumstances. So, if you have succeeded in creating something better for yourself - maybe against all odds - then there is a huge reason to joyfully celebrate this holiday season - in gratitude.

10. "I Can't Get Into the Holiday Spirit Because _____ is No Longer With Us"

If the holidays have generally been very pleasant, surrounded by loved ones, it is easy to assume it will always continue to be so.

Yet life is always changing. You may have lost a loved one, or you may be losing a number of people in your twilight years. If you have lost someone recently, and you are amidst mourning, you may indeed not be able to get into the holiday spirit.

Recognize that life changes, and that everything comes to an end. Take this celebration as a new opportunity, celebrate this day, this moment. After all, it may be our last one. Precisely because we do not have a guarantee of the future, the more reason to live this moment, the only one we have!

Go Celebrate!

About the Author...

Dr. Elke Zuercher-White is a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety- and related disorders. She practices in Portland, OR, and Vancouver, WA.

Last Update: 11/14/2011

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