Around this time last year, I sent an email to my readers with tips for surviving the holidays. I gathered several wonderful resources, which I’ll share below, and felt proud of the helpful content I’d provided. I imagine that we all have something we dread about the holidays and I felt like I’d covered all the bases.
If you read my recent post on holiday budgets, you learned my secret that I don’t love the holidays. If you didn’t read it, you can catch up here. It feels good to say things out loud because I usually find that I’m not the only one. This secret was also important to share because apparently, I wasn’t hiding it well.
A few days after I sent what I thought was an amazingly helpful email, I got a message from a reader. I’m paraphrasing here, but in short, they felt like the email was off-brand. They went on to explain how I always talk about thriving and living a meaningful life and that email was more about surviving the suffering that comes with the holidays.
Over the years, I’ve learned to value honest feedback. In this world of echo chambers, participation trophies, and public shaming (what a crazy time we live in); helpful feedback is becoming an endangered species.
I’ve also become adept at identifying whether the feedback is coming from a good place. There are a handful of people who genuinely care about me, want to see me succeed, and offer encouragement and suggestions from a sincere place of goodwill. Then there are the people I call proactively-defensive. These people shoot down our successes, generosity, values, and contentment in an attempt to make us feel terrible. Their egos tell them that this will help them avoid feeling bad about their own perceived shortcomings. In reality, though, they already feel bad. Why else would they try so hard to make others feel bad?
I felt like the feedback I received was meant to be helpful and came from a good place. So I listened to everything they had to say, asked for clarification, and self-reflected. I decided that I should take that feedback and try to create something better and that’s what I hope to provide below.
Holidays are Stressful
I imagine everyone feels at least a little stress as we make our final approach to the year-end holidays. Here in the United States, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all come and pass in a matter of five weeks. It’s no wonder a time that should be the most wonderful time of the year is often filled with overwhelm and dread.
The most common stressors during the holidays include family problems, loneliness, finances, overwhelm, health and weight management, and the year-end blues (feeling like you didn’t achieve what you planned). Some of these stressors we talk about a lot this time of year. The internet is full of advice on how to deal with your overbearing and manipulative mother in law, how to pare down your holiday budget, and tricks to prevent holiday weight gain. We aren’t, unfortunately, talking enough about the others.
If you’re reading this in the future (Hi! I hope things are better there!); this post was originally published in 2020. If you’re reading this in 2020, let me say, I see you, you matter, and I know this is hard. We’ll get through this and be better on the other side. Just keep holding on.
Earlier this year, I was re-listening to Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. The book was published in 2012 and in Chapter One she talks about the collective trauma we’ve experienced over the previous decade. She explained how 9/11, wars, The Great Recession, natural disasters, violence, and school shootings have forcefully changed our culture to one of fear and scarcity. I let out an uncomfortable laugh and thought to myself, that explains a lot about what we’re experiencing today.
Among other things, this new decade has brought us a pandemic, police brutality, civil unrest, a sharp increase in crime, and extreme political divisiveness. To quote a 97-year-old woman my husband, Jer, and I chatted with this summer, “I lived through World War II, The Great Depression, and everything that followed, and I’ve never seen anything crazier than 2020.” It’s been a crazy year for all of us. But it’s important to remember that although we’re all experiencing the same events, we’re all experiencing them in unique ways.
This brings me back to the most common holiday stressors, specifically the ones we don’t talk about. If we were struggling with loneliness, overwhelm, and year-end blues before 2020; I can’t imagine what the holidays will be like this year. I’m writing this at the end of October and I’m already seeing a lot of people who are really suffering. If you take one thing from this article, promise me that you’ll check in on the people you care about often. In times like these, we all need to feel like there’s someone who cares.
Is it Possible to Thrive?
As I was writing this post, I asked myself what it would look like to thrive during the holidays. I don’t know about you, but the first thing that pops into my mind is joy, laughter, connection, love, turkey, and a lot of sparkly confetti. Think any Normal Rockwell painting.
The picture I was conjuring in my head, however, wasn’t making me feel very joyful. I don’t particularly love crowds and loud parties. Many traditional holiday dishes are not my jam. And don’t get me started about confetti. I wondered, does thriving during the holidays look the same for everyone?
As I thought about it more, a holiday where I’m thriving would be low stress and laid back, no drama, no rushing, no expectations. I would spend it with people I care about, whether that’s just Jer, or a handful or two of kind, thoughtful, and interesting people. I’d spend some of that time in nature, whether snowshoeing in a local park or a long walk on a deserted beach somewhere warm. There would be good food, lightheartedness, and quality time together. Maybe I could even squeeze in some quiet alone time to read.
I might be off base here, but I feel like the holiday I described above is a far cry from the expected cultural norm. And I’ve come to be okay with that. For me, that’s the first step to learning to thrive.
Now I turn this question back to you. What would it look like if you were to thrive over the holidays? Would you travel? Where would you go? Who would you see? What would you eat? What activities would you partake in? How would you want it to feel? Take five minutes and write it out so you can really process your ideas.
What the Experts Say
There’s no denying that our holiday stressors can be complicated, especially when it comes to our loved ones. Since I don’t want to be responsible for destroying your relationships and turning you into the black sheep, let’s see what the experts have to say.
Each holiday season, a local psychologist and relationship expert shares The Assertive Bill of Rights for the Holidays. She writes, “In-laws and siblings and steps and ex’s and the new ones and your mom and my dad… pick a holiday, any holiday and your family has expectations about it. In the early days of creating a new family, when we circle the wagons around our kids and begin to think about the traditions we choose for our ‘happily ever after’ story, the pressure to hold onto old ways is strong. Some families hold tight to old ways and see change as threatening. Some families have painful pasts that they run from without a clear sense of where they are running to. Some families talk about everything and some families assume everything. Some yell and some seethe. As we move into the holiday season I challenge you to give some thoughts to your values around food, and time, and stuff, and responsibility, and joy and tradition, and who you call family. Take a step back and think about the holidays that your children will look back on and be intentional this season.”
Marriage Geek Assertive Bill of Rights for the Holidays
Adapted by Maureen Campion from Manuel J. Smith ‘When I say no, I feel guilty’
- You have the right to decide what works best for you and your family this holiday.
- You have the right to decide how much attention to give your extended family’s holiday wishes.
- You have the right to say no. Complete sentence.
- You have the right to stall-to say “I don’t know yet” or “let me think about that” or “we’ll just have to see how the day goes”.
- You have the right to change your mind. Things change. People are disappointed.
- You have the right to come late or leave early or skip the parts that don’t work for your family.
- You have the right to make choices that no one else will understand.
- You have the right to do less…or nothing.
- You have the right to disagree.
- You have the right to all your feelings (including anger) and to express them appropriately.
- You have the right to ask questions and make requests.
- You have the right to be treated with respect at all times.
- You have the right to feel good about yourself, your actions, and your life. You have the right to exercise any and all of these rights without feeling guilty.
While I throw my hands up and yell “YES!!” to every one of these, I also know that it’s easier said than done. There is a real and justifiable fear about what will happen if you say no, express your feelings, or stand up for yourself when you feel disrespected. Which brings us back to this final bullet. “You have the right to feel good about yourself, your actions, and your life.” It’s not going to happen overnight but each year you can take small steps to get there.
In addition to working on your bill of rights, I highly recommend this podcast episode from Mama Says Namaste. It’s filled with tips to navigate the most challenging family situations. You’ll learn how to communicate more constructively with those passive-aggressive relatives, how to not internalize the actions of others, how to set boundaries and embrace organic growth.
Both resources above reference setting boundaries. But unless you grew up around people who practiced setting healthy boundaries, it’s hard to know where to begin. I highly recommend picking up the book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud. If you’re looking for a different perspective, check out Setting Boundaries Will Set You Free by Nancy Levin.
And if all else fails, and you find yourself hiding in the bathroom with a bottle of pinot, remember this.
The 2020 Holiday Gift
As challenging as this year has been, I find myself repeating that this is the perfect opportunity to change things up. I still believe that we’ll find ways to get this pandemic thing under control. And when that happens, you don’t have to go back to the way things were before.
Throughout this year, I’ve heard over and over how much people have enjoyed slowing down. They’ve enjoyed more simplicity, more family time, and more time in nature.
What have you most enjoyed about this crazy year?
Whatever your answer, this is your opportunity to make that your permanent reality. Do you long to downsize and cut your expenses so that you can afford to go down to one income and spend more time together as a family? Are you ready to get rid of that expensive mortgage and move to the country and enjoy a life of simplicity and nature? How about ditching one of your cars and becoming a family of bike commuters? Why not grow a garden, cook your own meals, take control of your health? Or maybe you’re ready to improve your marriage, get divorced, or find the courage to do whatever it is you know you need to do. Just promise me you won’t go back to the things that made you miserable before all this.
The gift of 2020 also applies to the holidays. To be clear, this is not a post about what you should do for the holidays during a pandemic. I’m not an infectious disease expert. I believe that nothing in life is black and white. If you’re reading this, I trust that you are smart enough to make the decisions that are right for you and your family. Just know that you don’t have to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done and you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone.
Every year I hear parents complain about running ragged having to drag the kids from Christmas, to Christmas, to Christmas, to Christmas, all over the region, within a matter of days. The kids were crabby, they were fried, and by the time it’s over they were already dreading next year. There’s never been a better time to set new expectations for how you’ll engage with loved ones over the holidays.
Others agonize over the financial burden of having to buy all those gifts, decorations, and enough food to feed a small army. I wrote an entire post about holiday finances that you can read here. In short, most people have experienced financial struggles this year and I believe that we’re all empathic to the situation. There may never be another year when your loved ones will be more open to reconsidering your gift-giving traditions.
Maybe you come from an emotionally immature, abusive, or toxic family of origin. This is a great opportunity to take a step back and take a break. Explore some new traditions for your family. Make your favorite foods, enjoy fun activities, and allow yourselves to simply thrive. And never underestimate the value of a good therapist when you’re navigating family trauma such as this.
I’d be remiss to not acknowledge all of you who have beautiful family connections and are heartbroken to not be able to enjoy the holidays the same way you did just one year ago. I see you and empathize with your pain. What creative and meaningful ways can you be together this year? I hope you’re able to create beautiful new traditions that continue for generations to come.
And finally to all the single people who feel so alone right now. I see you and feel your pain. Find the courage to reach out and connect. I know how hard it can be when it feels like everyone you know is coupled and has a family of their own. But I also know that most of us are just waiting for someone to reach out and connect. You can be that person. Check out this post for everything you need to know about fostering more meaningful connections.
More Ways to Thrive the Holidays
Some of the greatest obstacles to thriving during the holidays are the expectations we cling to. We all grew up with a unique holiday experience. My husband loved the holidays and once explained it as “the happiest memories from his childhood.” He loved the magic, decorations, and spending time with his grandparents and extended family. For others, the holidays were filled with trauma, neglect, or addiction. Some of us were showered with expensive gifts. While others enjoyed simple, handmade gestures. Some families make a big to-do, bringing together the whole extended family. While others snuck away for intimate family ski trips in the mountains. None of us experienced the holidays the exact same way, and what’s even more fascinating is that this is often true among siblings.
Eventually, we leave our families of origin. Some of us get married and start families of our own. Other’s move far away and are unable to connect with their first family on holidays. The bottom line is that for most of us, the holidays change. By releasing the old expectations, you open the door to the opportunity to enjoy new and exciting experiences that are more aligned with who and where you are right now.
Below are some holiday expectations you may want to consider. I’ll navigate this section by sharing a little about my and Jer’s journey to thriving the holidays. I realize that the way we do almost everything is unique to us. I encourage you not to feel like you need to copy any of this but instead use it as an catalyst to make each of these areas work for you.
I often feel like an ungrateful monster admitting this. But I usually find that I’m not alone, so here it goes.
I don’t love gifts. I’m quite particular and like things a very specific way. I lean more toward the minimalist side and don’t keep things in my home that lack purpose. I tend to buy myself what I need, and if I don’t have it, it’s likely not in the price range for gift giving.
That’s not to say that I don’t love a thoughtful gift here and there. For instance, I was complaining about something that’s hard to come by these days. Someone I know had some laying around the house and gifted them to me with a bottle of holiday beer. That was so thoughtful, unexpected, and appreciated. So maybe it’s not so much the gifts but the expectations attached to them.
Over the years, I slowly squashed gift giving. That was until Jer expressed how much he missed exchanging gifts. I felt terrible that he held this in for so many years and that was the year that Santa started coming. He filled every inch below the tree with practical gifts he knew Jer wanted like pillows, jeans, bike helmets, and chocolate. I thought we were good until last year when Jer was upset that all of the gifts were for him. Ugh, I just can’t get this right.
We’re obviously still on the journey to figure out what works. And as we figure it out, I imagine it will continue to change. The important thing is to keep the conversation about your desires and expectations flowing.
I’ve already notified Santa that no matter how naughty I’ve been, he’s going to have to make the gifts more equitable this year. And I’ve also let Jer know that I really, really, really want a new saddle for my bike. So fingers crossed it will be all smiles on Christmas morn.
How about you? What would be the best gift-giving scenario for you? How about the rest of your family? What step could you take toward making that a reality this year?
It’s not uncommon for me to walk through the house and see something I no longer like or use and throw it in a box to donate to charity. I don’t like clutter and everything has a place. So while I love the glow of Christmas lights and candles on the Thanksgiving table, I’m happy to pass on other decorations.
But I also love to visit friends with beautifully decorated homes. It’s so warm and cozy. I just don’t have an interest in doing that myself. I’d rather buy a new tent than a new sofa and a new sleeping pad instead of fancy bedding.
Jer, of course, loves the decorations and the process of putting them up. I think we’ve finally come to a healthy balance that’s enjoyable for both of us. Although, we still argue about putting them up and taking them down.
How well do your holiday decorations fit with your current lifestyle? If you could change anything about decorating, what would that be? How will you communicate that this year?
I know we’re not the only ones whose diets are night and day from what we grew up on. But somehow those traditional holiday foods seem to hang around, even if we don’t love them. Let’s take cookies for example. I love me some warm and gooey chocolate chip cookies, and that’s about it. But for years I made (and ate) all those traditional recipes that didn’t bring me joy. Not to mention, they helped pack on a good five pounds between Thanksgiving and the New Year.
Today we have a rotation of dishes we both enjoy. We’ve also found ways to make them healthier without compromising flavor. It’s the best of both worlds.
Is holiday food a stressor for you? How could you simplify and feel better about your choices? Or do you need to scrap it all and start new holiday food traditions?
Do More of What You Love
I know many families who look forward to getting together for a big meal and spending the rest of the day watching sportsball. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. I just personally have zero interest in sports. I don’t know the players nor do I understand the rules. So those afternoons were noisy torture sessions for me. And then I discovered that I could go outside for a walk.
Again, just because things have always been done a certain way, doesn’t mean you have to keep doing them that way. And there’s no law that everyone has to do the same thing, whether that’s playing a game or watching a sporting event. These days, most of our holidays include a long hike, or if we’re lucky, a long bike ride.
What’s something you love to do that you could incorporate into your holidays this year?
I think it’s safe to say that most people have some sort of family drama. There can be shame, guilt, and toxic messaging around the ideas and expectations of family. If it’s something that keeps you up at night or you stress about outside of the holidays, maybe it’s time to work with a therapist.
Remember that you get to define what family means to you. For example, not having children of our own, I never really consider the two of us a family. To me, the word family meant that greater group of people you share ancestors with. Then one day I was with a friend and she said, “oh, my family just text me.” And I asked, “Like your husband and daughter family?” Confused, she responded, “yeah.” And it was that moment that I realized that I could define what family meant to me. (I know, it takes me a while sometimes.)
The same is true for you. Maybe you’ve moved far away and consider your friend group to be your family. Perhaps you’re closer to your childhood best friend’s family than your own. Or you might be lucky enough to have a close group of extended family you get together with several times each year. Whoever it is, wherever they are, you get to define what family means to you.
Who are the most important people in your life? Do you consider them family?
I saved the most important piece for last. Whether your stress comes from the pressure you put on yourself, loneliness, the line at Trader Joe’s, or family problems, stress is something we’ll all encounter over the holidays. Here are some ways to stay mindful and find your center again.
The Serenity Prayer
I was thinking about my upcoming word of the year which led me down a rabbit hole that ended up at The Serenity Prayer which led me to the original. WOW! What a perfect prayer for the times we live in. Feel free to print this out and carry it with you to read when it feels like everything is out of control.
God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
And the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,— The Reverend Reinhold Niebuhr
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Let it RAIN
Like many people, I grew up believing emotions were weakness. We’ve all heard that big boys don’t cry and those little girls who express their needs and opinions are bossy. So up until the age of 40, I had two emotions. Things were either good or bad.
Since then I’ve embraced the difficult task of learning to recognize and feel my emotions. Something that’s helped is the process of RAIN: Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture. You can learn more about the process here.
The Buddhist meditation Metta, or Loving Kindness, has been growing in popularity in recent years. It starts by wishing love and compassion for yourself and ends with wishing the same for all beings everywhere. And in the middle, you wish loving-kindness to someone you have a difficult relationship with.
It’s definitely a “practice” but has been shown to have many benefits such as pain reduction, activating empathy, and curbing self-criticism. You can learn more about loving kindness here and then search for guided meditations on YouTube or you favorite meditation app.
Ho’oponopono is a Hawaiian practice of reconciliation and forgiveness. Ho’oponopono corrects, restores, and maintains good relationships among family members by getting to the sources of trouble; something our western culture doesn’t always excel at. The process is traditionally a family affair, but don’t worry, simply doing it on your own can bring great healing. Check out the video below to learn more.
As usual, I’ve covered a lot here because I know that we’re all on unique journeys. Please don’t feel like you need to make a bunch of changes all at once. Instead, I encourage you to pick one small thing you know you could implement this year. Maybe it’s simply saying “no”, or staying active and incorporating stress-busting foods. Whatever it is, promise yourself that you’ll follow through on your one thing so you too can start thriving the holidays instead of simply surviving them.