I have always loved the idea of the winter holidays. Each year, I look forward to driving through the misty Northern California countryside to cut down a tree at the farm I visited as a child. I cherish lighting the ornate brass menorah my brother-in-law gave me when he joined our family. And I eagerly await the unwrapping extravaganza in my living room on Christmas morning.
But truth be told, sometimes I realize I’m not enjoying the holidays very much.
In reality, I spend much of the season anxiously making to-do lists, jostling for parking spaces, and losing sleep worrying about whether everyone had a good time during the festivities. By the time New Year’s comes around, I’m exhausted and depleted — and at times I find myself vowing “never again.”
Most of my unhappiness comes from trying to do too much in too little time, leaving no mental space to look around and think, How wonderful.
Worse, by placing so much emphasis on providing a just-right holiday experience, I put pressure on family and friends, transferring my overwrought expectations and knife-edge emotions to the very people I’m hoping to please.
A few years ago, as my family frantically cleaned bathrooms and rolled out cookie dough before our annual Christmas-carol sing-along, my older daughter waved a sponge in the air and called out, “This is supposed to be fun?!”
And on Christmas Eve, as I headed off to wrap presents, I overheard my younger daughter mournfully remarking to her sister that this was the third year in a row they’d watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas without me. She confided that she wished I’d hang out with them and just leave the presents in bags.
But even with her comment ringing in my ears and tears welling in my eyes, I couldn’t leave those gifts unwrapped.
The Problem With Perfect
“Often, what’s going on underneath perfectionism is a desire for control,” says Kristine Oller, a Los Angeles–based coach who specializes in guiding individuals and groups through change. “With the holidays, this can manifest as a desire to recapture something you had at some point in the past. But the thing about memories is they’re our own little edited movies. When we try to make an experience turn out a certain way, we set ourselves up for disappointment.”
“With the holidays, this can manifest as a desire to recapture something you had at some point in the past. But the thing about memories is they’re our own little edited movies. When we try to make an experience turn out a certain way, we set ourselves up for disappointment.”
Fear of judgment is another dynamic that’s at play for many of us. “Maybe we’re afraid we’ll seem self-indulgent and lazy if we don’t drive and push ourselves,” suggests Kristin Neff, PhD, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Self-Compassion.
These joy-killing forces don’t just affect the makers of holiday feasts. Those who are expected to show up for all the planned services, performances, and gift exchanges face similarly high expectations to be appreciative and happy.
It is possible, though, to transform holiday stress. These expert tips can help us reframe our thinking and make wiser choices so we can approach this busy time of year with more ease and enjoyment.
Rethink Your Priorities
As you make your lists, take a moment to look at everything you’re planning — and then do a reality check on what it’s going to take to accomplish it all.
“Your perspective will start to change, and you’ll see what you’re doing to yourself,” says productivity expert David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. “It becomes much easier to say no once you see everything you’ve said yes to.”
As you narrow your list to priorities you can realistically manage, Allen suggests making a second list: what you and others would like to get out of experiences. “No. 1 on the list might be fun, for example. Make a deal with your family and friends that if you’re not having fun, you’ll blow the whistle and rethink what you’re doing.” (For more details on Allen’s proven, five-step process, see “5 Steps to Getting Things Done.”)
Learn to Let Go
When we’re shooting for perfection, everything seems to have equal weight, explains Oller. “But if you don’t want to exhaust yourself, you have to ask yourself which things you can let go of.”
This isn’t easy. When you turn down an invitation or announce that this year’s pies are going to be store-bought, someone’s going to be unhappy, and their disappointment can be hard to tolerate.
“It can feel almost unbearable, at least in that moment,” Oller notes. “And when you don’t want to feel those feelings, you’ll pull yourself in every direction trying to control everything so that everyone is happy.”
A healthier alternative is to gradually test and strengthen your tolerance for disappointing — or at least not pleasing — others. Otherwise, you’re trading momentary comfort for lasting burnout.
Replace Self-Judgment With Self-Compassion
Often, our holiday stress comes down to a concern about what other people think or expect of us. “When we are afraid of being judged, it’s usually because we are harsh judges — of others and particularly of ourselves,” says Oller.
One way to change your perspective is to imagine a friend in your situation, suggests Neff. Treat yourself with the same nonjudgmental kindness you would offer that person.
“Ask yourself, If my friend were freaking out about Thanksgiving dinner, what would I say? You wouldn’t say, ‘You’ll never get it right!’ or ‘It’s going to be a failure!’ You would naturally and instinctually be warm, supportive, and reassuring.
“You’ve already got these skills, which you’ve developed to support those you care about,” Neff continues. “Self-compassion is about giving yourself permission to use those skills for yourself.”
Ask for Help
Whether or not your family and friends share your feelings about the holidays, there’s no question that stress can be contagious, says Allen. “Your kids or your partner may be thinking, I hope you don’t get stressed out like you did last year — and then they’ll get nervous too.”
Allen recommends open and clear communication. Get everyone involved in thinking about the ideal holiday experience, what’s most and least important, and how each person can chip in.
“You can say, ‘Hey, guys, I’d love to have as fun a holiday as possible. Here’s my list of what I’d love to create, but I don’t want to run the show by myself. What’s important to you and how would you like to be involved?’” Make it a group effort.
Taking the Advice to Heart
For me, relaxing during the holidays now involves loosening my attachment to an idealized past. For example, I’ve always bought everyone in the family new pajamas and slippers to wear on Christmas Eve, but it’s no longer easy to find something they’ll wear.
“Try thinking about what was so special about that experience,” Oller suggests. “You’ll realize it was because it felt cozy and allowed everyone to be silly.”
She’s absolutely right. It was never about the PJs. It was about the experience.
So, now we aim to chill out more, be cozy and silly, and laugh a lot. And as long as that happens, it will be a good holiday.
This article has been updated. It originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Experience Life.