I am painfully guilty of overshooting my expectations for the holidays. Just the other day, I had planned a glorious Pinterest-inspired Christmas photoshoot at home with my two young children. I had painstakingly hung the white twinkle lights on the headboard to achieve the perfect bokeh-effect, pulled the crisp white linens taut across our bed, carefully selected two decorative cone-shaped trees from our storage room as background props, and laid out matching Christmas hats and pyjamas for my children to wear. It would be PERFECT!
The whole experience quickly descended into disaster. Like herding kittens, convincing my two lovelies to remain in one spot, swiftly proved impossible. Persuading them both to smile, or well, just LOOK at the camera simultaneously…forget it! After an excruciatingly long fifteen minutes of me urging, begging, bribing, and even mildly threatening, I finally let out a big sigh, shrugged my shoulders, and resigned myself to the fact that this particular photoshoot was just not in the cards that day. Abandoning the scene, I dressed them both and we headed outside for some much-needed fresh air.
I wish I could say that the image of a perfect photoshoot and Christmas card never again crossed my mind, but the thing is, I found it hard to let go of my dashed expectations. That evening, I felt irritable and short-tempered, not traits I’m proud of. Under the influence of stress, I tend to release negatively on my loved ones. I get snarky. I get blamey. I zero-in on unimportant details. Then comes the ‘shame storm.’ This is not the kind of mother and wife I want to be! Why on Earth would I feel such attachment to something as seemingly petty as a photoshoot?
They say you can’t pour from an empty cup, that you need to put your oxygen mask on before helping anyone else when the plane is going down, that in order to help others, you need to show attentiveness to your own needs first. With anxiety and depression on the rise across North America, it is no surprise that people are desperately seeking solutions to curb their overwhelming stress levels, so that they can be mindful and present, as well as demonstrate on-going, genuine kindness to their partners, children, families, friends, and coworkers.
As the busy Christmas season approaches, the mounting pressure of holiday expectations, growing list of “to-do’s”, and overbooked calendars can contribute to cataclysmic break-downs. This reflective time of year also forces us to evaluate our lives from a macro, zoomed-out perspective. Often, the process of examination has a way of reminding us who or what is missing in our lives. Throughout the year, grief and loss might feel like waves lapping gently at the edge of our minds. However, during the holidays, grief and feelings of loss can feel like pounding waves, sweeping us off the rock upon which we stand, and plunging us into their depths. Often, we only realize we’ve been triggered once we’re in the midst of an emotional hurricane.
Some of us offload our stress on loved-ones through bursts of outrage, resentment, points-keeping, and/or blame. Fight. Others retreat inward or find ways of escaping from the chaos. Flight. And some of us are so completely paralyzed by the whole lead-up that we procrastinate and avoid anything related to the holidays. Freeze. These are all evolutionary processes our brains employ to cope with stressors and threats to our wellbeing.
I know I’m not alone. We all feel varying degrees of overwhelm during this time of the year. Teachers, parents, nurses, leaders, retirees, friends, business owners…almost everyone I know is struggling to find balance during this busy lead-up to the holidays. I’m guessing you’ve had moments of reckoning, yourself. My friend just recently sent me a text and announced that a Christmas bomb had exploded at her place. I literally laughed aloud when I saw the attached picture of seasonal trimmings spread like confetti all over her kitchen and living room floor, furniture, and countertops…overwhelming is an understatement! During a conversation, she once told me, “I swear, one of these years, I would love nothing more than to go on strike from the expectations of Christmastime. It’s all too much!”
According to the American Psychology Association, “holiday stress has a particular impact on women, who take charge of many of the holiday celebrations, particularly the tasks related to preparing meals and decorating the home. Women are more likely than men to report an increase of stress during the holiday season.” Often pressure can cause women to use a variety of negative strategies to cope with the increased demands on them during this time.
As an admittedly type-A personality, I’ve always been a list person. When I’m feeling restless or overwhelmed, I often turn to list-making as a way to create certainty for myself, some illusion of a roadmap. Many times, I’ve discussed with friends the unique joy one experiences when one records an already completed task on list only to cross it off immediately. Done!
It wasn’t until I read Simon Sinek’s book Leaders Eat Last, that I fully understood why this ritual feels so fulfilling to me. List-making, and specifically the act of crossing tasks off of our lists, triggers our brains to release dopamine (one of the four happiness hormones). Dopamine is responsible for the feeling of achievement we get, the reward, for attaining incremental goals. However, there is a downside to dopamine.…it’s highly addictive. Dopamine is also released when someone with substance abuse gets their “hit.” When I first read that, I had to catch my breath. “Oh my goodness,” I remember thinking to myself, “I’m a task addict!”
The thing about list-making and goal setting, is that we’re never done. We hunger for the feeling of achievement again. So, we make more lists, expect more from ourselves, and don’t rest until we complete the task. Evolutionarily, human beings have benefitted overall from the dopamine drive because it has enabled us to strive, set goals, and make incredible discoveries and inventions that have fundamentally enriched our lives. Nevertheless, the achievement hamster wheel can ironically leave us exhausted and can contribute to the stress we feel, especially when we attach judgement to the completion or incompletion of tasks. When we feel an unstoppable urgency to get it all done at all costs, there’s very little benefit to anyone. So, as it turns out, my age-old strategy might be hurting me more than helping me.
So, how do we counteract seasonal stress? How do we avoid the pitfalls of striving for the “ideal” holiday and the ensuing disappointment when reality falls short? How do we honour the need for downtime, reflection, mindfulness, the oxygen mask that enables us to survive the anxiety and stress of the holidays, and enjoy our friends and families in the whole-hearted way we want to?
After some exploration, I’ve identified four research-backed practices (I know…it’s a list) that I believe will replace burden and stress of the holidays with joy, magic, and the human connectedness we all seek.
1. Evaluate your Expectations:
Perfection is not the key, reflection is. The quality of our lives come from the questions we ask.
Instead of waiting for underlying expectations to surprise you, get real about and examine them head-on.
Tim Urban, an acclaimed blogger and researcher, discusses overall happiness in the context of social media: “Social media creates a world where…most people present an inflated versions of their own existence. This leaves [us] feeling, incorrectly, like everyone else is doing really well, only adding to [our] misery.” Naturally, we compare our lives to the lives of others, we develop the perception that we are somehow falling short, and as a result, we ramp up expectations of ourselves. And since, according to Urban, “Happiness equals reality minus expectation” we tragically find ourselves stressed and overwhelmed as a result. Being happy has more to do with adjusting our perfectionist expectations than achieving everything on the list.
Think about what an ideal holiday “looks, feels, sounds like” (this may incidentally involve some list making for inventory purposes). Then, by asking yourself some key questions, weed out the erroneous stuff on that list. You want to be left with is a distilled list, that authentically reflects your values, that is achievable, and doesn’t leave you weary.
You might want to ask yourself the following questions to help you:
- What do these things/activities represent to me?
- What am I fearful of happening if they aren’t completed?
- What am I believing about the tasks on my list?
In my case, it often, it boils down to this FALSE idea:
If I can’t complete the tasks, it’ll diminish my value as a mother, a woman, a wife, and a contributing member of society.
When I work to reframe those often false and limiting beliefs, it becomes easier to let the little stuff go!
2. Practice Play
I recently attending a wonderful event hosted by the TD Speaker Series where Dr. Shimi Kang, a Canadian neuroscientist, author, and TED speaker discussed the importance of cultivating play for our well-being. Her message particularly hit home when she stated that the opposite of perfectionism is play! If I’m honest, play has not been a priority for me as an adult. Sure, I play with my kids, but it’s rare that I feel fully immersed in the flow of play.
This talk really encouraged me to re-examine the role of play in my life and seek opportunities for authentic play.
3. Make Memories
Spend real, face-to-face time with loved ones.
4. Dedicate Yourself to Downtime
Engage in mindfulness, meditation (I use Headspace every day), few extra minutes of tactical breathing, a quiet ritual that allows yourself to start the day with positive intention, and/or immerse yourself in nature. Mindfulness brings you back to the root of who you are and reminds you what fills you up. Instead of getting caught up in constantly evaluating your life, you can allow yourself experience the present without judgement.
The focus on mindfulness is increasing in schools, workplaces, and homes everywhere. Lisa Bayliss, a colleague, counsellor, and resiliency mentor in the Greater Victoria School District, was just featured in PowHERhouse magazine for her ground-breaking mindfulness program for teachers. She is actively working to provide teachers with skills and strategies they need to combat burnout through her workshops, online presence, and the work she does in schools.
As the busy holidays approach, I am comforted that
by re-examining my holiday expectations,
finding opportunities for genuine play,
connecting with friends and family,
and by making downtime and mindful practice a priority,
I can free myself from obligations that do not bring joy and invite the real magic of the holiday season into our home.
Image Credit: redbubble.com