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Surviving the Holidays: Expectations versus Reality

Beginning around November, the images begin to flood our TV screens and social media feeds. Warm lighting, laughing families, perfectly set tables, matching sweaters, love and coziness. Even the most realistic among us can’t help but be seduced a little by the promise that something special about this time of year will fulfill all our fantasies of love and connection and cast a warm glow around all our friends and loved ones.

Except, our friends and loved ones are complicated, flawed human beings, not Hallmark movie characters. Our families have histories ranging from minor personality clashes to deep trauma and loss. We might find ourselves alone more than we’d like, or chafing under the irritation of too many opinions in too small a space. The children are more loud and irritable than glowing and innocent. The TV is on too loud for some reason. You’re exhausted or anxious, or depressed. This is not what it’s supposed to be like.

Or, maybe you’re spending time alone at the holidays, or away from your family of origin by choice or due to circumstances, and images of happy families are alienating or painful. You might be coping with grief, and managing reminders of your loss that accompany the holidays.

While research supports that anticipating a pleasant experience, like a vacation or family get-together, can enhance the enjoyment we get from it, our enjoyment can be compromised when we have unrealistic expectations that an event can’t live up to. One challenge to our mental health and well-being at the holidays is managing our expectations in a way that allows us to enjoy what is enjoyable about the real experiences and celebrations we encounter. Here are a few tips to help you get started:

Beware the Instagram effect. Research tells us that the effects of social media on our well-being are complex, but one negative influence is social comparison. Comparing yourself to others is usually a recipe for unhappiness. This is compounded by people’s tendency to share moments and images where things are going well and everybody looks good. We end up comparing our everyday to everyone else’s highlight reel! Remember that what you see in media, whether that’s television, advertising, or social media, isn’t a reflection of reality. And, pay attention to your mood when using social media. If it isn’t good for you right now, cut back or take a break!

Remember the good and bad of past celebrations. To manage expectations, think back on your past celebrations. When you look through old photos, remember what was happening before and after the photo. Remember what was joyful, what was aggravating, what was funny, what was boring, what was exciting, what was disappointing. Take a deep breath and focus on what really mattered about it to you, and make your plans with that in mind.

Set boundaries and don’t overcommit. Say no and set boundaries when you need to. If you foresee an upsetting conversation, identify strategies ahead of time for cutting it short if you need to. If seeing someone is triggering or emotionally damaging for you, make plans to avoid or limit contact. Try to be realistic about what you will have time for, prioritize what you value most, and leave yourself some time for self-care during the holiday season. If you tend to be a people-pleaser, starting by just identifying one small thing you can say a firm “no” to or one boundary you can stick with can help you to break that pattern.

Be present. Sometimes we can get caught up in trying to manage a situation and forget to enjoy what we can about it. Try using mindfulness techniques to settle into your experience this season. One way to do this is to check in with your five senses--noting what you can see, touch, hear, and smell in any one moment. Sometimes just checking in with your physical experience can help you be less caught up in your thoughts and more appreciative of the moment. Taking a moment to try meditation (often using audios like these is helpful for beginners: while you’re not celebrating can help you build the skill of being present, and is helpful for managing stress, too.

Make room for all your emotions. Especially if you’re grieving or coping with a difficult family situation, allow yourself to feel whatever you’re going through and make time to self-soothe and cope. Opt out of what isn’t right for you this year, and seek support if you need it.

Find someone to laugh with. Life is messy and sometimes humor can be a good coping strategy. Whether it’s a family member who gets why that something drives you crazy or a friend you can share a few texts with over your holiday visit, having a little laugh with someone can help us reduce stress and embrace our whole complicated, joyful, awkward, sad, funny, non-photogenic holiday experiences.

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