How To Feel Joy During the Holidays By Letting Go of Expectations
Buying into the Big Holiday Set-Up
I hate to admit this, but the minute I think of the holidays my immediate response is: stress. I flash on all the things I’ll have to do and all the people I’ll need to please. This is embarrassing to admit. Because if I really think about it, the holidays, when removed from the influence of our culture, are purely about peace and love. The only stress is the stress I inflict on myself. Maybe you’re feeling it too. It comes from the expectations we place on each other and on the holiday season. We want to think we’re smarter than this, but our commercial culture has successfully conditioned us to feel that anything short of a Hallmark scene brimming with rosy cheeked children, gorgeous food, and lots of togetherness borders on holiday failure. It’s the BIG HOLIDAY SET-UP. Billions of dollars and some very creative minds have cultivated these expectations for the last 80 years or so, so of course we’re seduced. The result: a season highlighted by rushing around, overspending, and at the end, a secret relief that it’s over. Is this any way to spend the holidays?
If the season feels like a chore, then you, like me, have bought into the set-up. Let’s take an unflinching look at our expectations about the holidays. If we’re very honest, they may look something like this: “Our family should all be together for the holidays. I should look my best for the holidays. I should be surrounded by family and friends during the holidays. I should have a romantic evening with my husband during the holidays. I should make homemade food like my mom did for the holidays. I should feel loved during the holidays”, and the killer: “My family and friends should appreciate all that I do to make the holidays special.” You probably have some variation on these themes. Are these expectations realistic? If the expectations aren’t held up to the light of day and examined, then you might go through the season with a nagging feeling that something is missing. Or, you might knock yourself out trying to make the expectations come true. You may succeed. Or this may be your own, personal holiday set-up.
Are “Shoulds” Killing Your Holiday Joy?
Each of the statements above contains the word “should”. It’s amazing that such a little word can kill joy so efficiently and we’re not even aware we’re using it . Eckhart Tolle says that joy comes from within you and flows into the activity you’re doing. When you use a “should” statement, you’re reversing the process, and assuming that a certain scenario will bring the joy to you. But the joy is in focusing on the process, not the outcome, and if you’re rushing and multitasking while you make your homemade pies, then you’re missing the joy of creating them. If you’re single, and doggedly trolling the social scene looking for a cute date for the company Christmas party, then you’re missing the joy of spontaneously connecting with people. Once the homemade food is cooked, you may feel relieved and even proud, but joyful? You’ve probably already moved on to the next task. If you don’t feel much joy during the holidays, you’re probably focused on the effort you’re expending to meet your expectations and you’re missing the joy that comes with the process.
Of course, not everything is a “should”. There are lots of things we want to do, and it can come as a shock when something you really want to do mysteriously morphs into the status of chore. Example: Let’s assume that hosting the Thanksgiving dinner is something you really want to do. You’re en-joying the process: the creativity, the cooking, the careful attention to each detail. Then your sister (who was in charge of the wine) shows up late with a case of 2 Buck Chuck. Your mom drinks way too much champagne. Your cousin brings her Jack Russell terrier. And gradually, without even realizing it, the responsibility of dinner, which you heartily enjoyed a little while ago, feels like a burden. You’re a victim. We call this resentment, and it usually comes when you have unfulfilled expectations about others, usually without realizing it.
Resentment is sneaky, and you start to wonder how the dinner took this decidedly unjoyful turn, when you went to so much trouble to make everything perfect. “How COULD they!” Your resentment is not your sister’s problem, or your mom’s, or your cousin’s. It’s really your problem because you had the unrealistic expectation that everyone would “behave”. The cure: be on guard for any sign of resentment and the moment you recognize it, remind yourself that you chose to host Thanksgiving dinner, and that you can’t control what other people do. Even if you felt you “had” to host dinner, you still chose it. You could have said no. As soon as you wholeheartedly own this choice, your resentment will magically disappear. It will probably re-appear at a weak moment (don’t drink too much), and then you’ll have to remind yourself again, and again, and again, as I do!.
Have a Blast this Holiday Season by Letting Go of Expectations
If we can let go of expectations, we can have a blast this holiday season. Is your extended family a pain in the neck? Well I’m not surprised, because extended family is a great idea in theory, but then you have all those messy personalities who don’t always go with the program. Meaning the program we’ve set up in our heads! So let’s let go of the expectation that they’ll act appropriately and let them muddle through the holiday dinner while you tell jokes or play with somebody’s baby. Enlist your bored niece to keep an eye on your tipsy mother. Everyone knows that if the hostess is having a good time, the guests will have a good time. So let’s relax and enjoy ourselves and everyone else will too.
Let go for a minute of how our culture defines holiday “success” and let your mind wander to what really brings you joy. You might enjoy hunkering down with your fun, crotchety neighbor to play cards together with no Christmas tree in sight. You’ve never seen this on a holiday commercial, but who cares? This may be something you really enjoy. You might enjoy spontaneously heading downtown with your dog one night to walk around taking in the lights and decorations. You might enjoy popping into a church or temple and having a quiet moment.
My daughter and I get a lot of joy out of leaving the TV on the Christmas carol channel all evening till my husband pleads for mercy. I was thinking about why this is so much fun, and it occurred to me that other than the effect it has on my husband, (he actually enjoys it up to a point) it’s a very low-expectation holiday activity. By the time Andy Williams comes on, we’re really rockin’! We make a long Christmas list and traipse through the stores together buying small gifts for friends and relatives, most of whom we rarely see and who may or may not buy us anything. Avery tells me each year that this is the biggest highlight of her holiday. At 12, she’s not mulling the pros and cons of expectations, but I think that giving without expecting anything in return is what makes this so much fun.
How do we let go of holiday expectations that are killing our joy? This may sound radical, but here’s what I’m trying out: don’t expect your whole family to come for Christmas; don’t expect your hair to look great; don’t expect to go to a wonderful holiday party; don’t expect your husband to buy you a truly thoughtful gift, and don’t expect guests to behave during your holiday dinner! This doesn’t mean we don’t try, or we don’t care. It would be a wonderful bonus if those things happened. But when we let go of the expectations, we let go of the notion that we need these things to have a truly wonderful holiday. And that’s very freeing! I can feel the joy already. Happy Holidays!