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When Holiday Expectations Don’t Meet Reality

The topic of family tends to come up a lot in my therapy office around this time of year. While we often look forward to gathering together and seeing loved ones we haven’t seen in a long time, it can also bring on extra stress and difficulties.

Holiday Expectations

One thing I find to be a pretty common theme is the struggle people have between the hope of what their holiday will look like versus what the reality of it will likely be. I think the artwork of Norman Rockwell, a painter from the 1920s is a great example of what I mean. He completed a painting depicting what looks like the “perfect” family meal: Multiple generations of family members are sitting around the table, smiling; fine china and linen are laid out; Grandma is placing a perfectly cooked turkey on the table, while Grandpa stand at the head of the table, ready to carve.

This sounds (and looks lovely – the epitome of the perfect family gathering. Some of us might actually have holidays that look like that, although I don’t know many people that do… Of course, that’s not to say that we don’t love our family! You could have a very good relationship with your family, and it can still be stressful! We often push ourselves and our boundaries much more during the holidays. For example, I’d imagine that you don’t usually have sleepovers at your parents’ house anymore, nor are you accustomed to eating multiple meals a day with the same people over and over. Just those things alone can be stressful and that’s if you get along with your family…and can add to the growing heap of stress if you don’t get along with you family.

Most people try to convince themselves that this holiday with be different, better, less stressful.

Others might work really hard not to think about it at all. I would argue neither of those strategies actually end up being very effective. Yes, there can be some benefit to having positive hopes and expectations. And I certainly don’t mean that you should never have positive thoughts about future gatherings. I am also not talking about catastrophizing, or already assuming that the worst possible thing could and will happen. What I AM talking about is more about when your hopes and your worries really don’t match reality or the observable facts of what family gatherings typically look like.

So how do we cope?

As a DBT therapist, I often suggest pulling from some of the more radical skills within DBT. Here is a step by step guide to maneuver the holidays, effectively.

Radically Accept Your Family Holidays For What They Are

Instead of trying to hope for something that is likely not going to happen, acknowledge that your family holidays tend to be the way they are. Notice, I am not saying to “approve of” or “be happy with.” A lot of people confuse the two, but the distinction is important. I mean to acknowledge and accept. There is a big difference.

If you struggle to accept the reality of your holidays, you may find yourself underprepared or kicking and screaming (either metaphorically or literally) as things unfold. Radical acceptance works in a paradoxical way: by accepting your reality, you can then move forward more effectively and more on your terms. If you already know your family will have a fight over a game of monopoly: accept it. Why do this? Because as much as you might like to, you can’t control what your family does. You can only control how you react. While you might not understand why things go down the way they do in your family, you don’t need to know “the why” to know that it’s still coming and prep accordingly.

Put Radical Acceptance Into Practice

So what does this look like in real life? Physically, it means changing your body language and posture to reflect a more accepting mind. In plain English, this means getting your body in an open and relaxed position. Do you feel as if you’re carrying a bunch of stress in your back? Are your shoulders up to your ears or are your arms constantly crossed? If you notice these physical signs of stress, take a minute or so to purposefully relax your body.

Mentally, it means noticing when your thoughts are “rejecting reality”. This is categorized as thoughts like, “why does grandpa always talk about politics?” or “maybe cousin Bert won’t actually bring up the time he gave me a wedgie in 4th grade,” or “why do they always ruin things?” While these thoughts may seem helpful, they only really keep you stuck in that emotional state of memory longer. The idea would be to notice when you have these thoughts. Shift them towards something like “Yes, my parents argue even on new year’s. I do not know why. But they do”. This then lends your brain to be able to move on and think of other things. Like how you might avoid hearing or being a part of the argument this year.

Cope Ahead

When people can already foresee a stressful event on the horizon, most people either try to convince themselves that things will be fine or think that they just won’t get stressed this time around. However, that usually doesn’t do much to prepare us for what’s coming. In fact, it might actually ignite the spark that gets you even more anxious for that interaction! Research shows that the more you are able to imagine something as you want it to happen, the more likely it will actually occur in real life!

This means imagining how you want the holiday to go for you, down the very smallest detail. What do you want your body posture to look like? How do you want to be breathing? Can you imagine where you will sit at the table? The more detailed you get and the more your rehearse this in your mind, the more likely you will be able to pull it off at the moment, particularly if emotions are running high.

If you find you are getting more and more stressed by the holidays, please know that you are not alone!

If you are a regular visitor to Integrated Care Clinic’s website, you might have noticed an influx of “holiday-themed” blogs. This is because it is something that comes up very frequently around this time of year! You might find talking to a friend might be helpful or confiding in a trusted family member, but if the holidays are getting you a bit too overwhelmed, please feel free to outreach any of our clinicians at Integrated Care Clinic. We are here to help!

Dr. Mann is a licensed psychologist that specializes in healthy coping, college adjustment, anxiety, personal identity, balance, and mindfulness.

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