I’m declaring “holiday stress” a national mental health crisis. I just read one of those 5 tips to reduce holiday stress articles, and one suggestion for letting off steam was to go to a private place to scream out all your pent-up rage. Really, Cosmo? This is solid advice for a med student about to take their board exams…but the holidays should never reach this level of stress!
The pressure we put on ourselves to make the holidays magical is massive. For many of us, it comes from a place of caring; let’s make it special for the kids, create memories, carry on a sense of tradition and obligation, impress others, and strive for perfection. The holidays are a people-pleaser’s dream come true and a perfectionist’s worst nightmare.
I want you to try something. I want you to visualize how you hope your holiday dinner with the family will go. Do you have it? Good. Do you feel all warm and safe, picturing joy and peace, the kids caroling in the snow and the smell of gingerbread wafting through the house? Good news, you’re an optimist.
Or on the other hand, does the thought of the holidays fill you with a sense of dread, worrying about getting it all done in time, how to handle Uncle Bill’s political rants, or the kids throwing tantrums in front of the guests? Well, I guess you’re more of a realist.
Ada, one of our therapists here at People Bloom once had a client who talked about Thanksgiving going “exactly as planned.” The turkey came out just right, everyone had a great time and no one argued. He was retirement age and that was the first time it has ever happened. Ada’s advice to him was, “You need to mark that on the calendar because that’s not going to be a common occurrence!”
At any rate, regardless of how you visualized your holiday this year, now I want you to erase it! Yes, you heard me; erase the expectation. Things never go quite as we imagine they will. Going into holiday festivities with no expectation, and with no anticipation of the worst will clear your mind of the worries. All you can do is face the next few weeks with an open heart. Have a plan, but be willing to hold onto the plan loosely and do your best. This brings us to the next question: how do you do your best without burning yourself out?
Managing emotional labor
When it’s time to plan for the holidays, you know that if you don’t do it, it won’t get done. So you take it on yourself to do it all, and do it right. I know there’s a part of you that enjoys the adrenaline rush, and the thrill of bringing joy and delight to your family. But there’s another part too: the tired part, the part that doesn’t always feel appreciated for going above and beyond, the disappointed part when things often do not turn out as planned.
If you’re running the household, things are busy enough. The holidays take busy to the next level, which can leave you feeling stretched too thin and wondering if it’s worth the effort you tirelessly put in.
If the holiday hustle and bustle leaves you tired and worn out, ask yourself…
Who am I doing all this for?
Do these people matter? If it’s distant relatives and acquaintances you only see once a year, can you imagine taking some pressure off yourself to impress?
Why am doing this?
Focus on what makes the holidays meaningful to you. When you really delve deep, it’s not about anything external. The holidays are about faith for some, as well as family time, gratitude and a sense of community. All the consumerism and chaos that go beyond this is societal, self-imposed and likely unnecessary/slightly awful.
What will happen if I DON’T do everything on the list?
So, there will be two pies instead of three, there won’t be a handcrafted wreath on the door, Aunt Gloria won’t get a Christmas card, and the kids won’t get 28 presents each. And everyone will survive. I promise the world won’t end.
Drop unnecessary rituals. I know you always made 17 varieties of toffee brittle to give to every member of the extended family. They treasure it when they receive it, but nothing in the world order is changed if they don’t get their sugar fix. Ask yourself why you feel compelled to do so much for others. Is it because you have boundless energy and it brings you joy? Or is it a sense of obligation? If it’s the latter, you know what to do. Or not to do, in this case.
A relaxed host is a happy host
If you’re hosting the big dinner, take on what you can and let the rest fall by the wayside. You could tear your hair out making sure every traditional dish makes it to the table, but your guests will be more impressed by a simple meal with a relaxed and happy you than a decadent six-course meal with a stressed out, frantic and exhausted you.
If your holiday dinner is not already a potluck, consider making it a potluck. No, really. And don’t worry if a dish doesn’t get made or there is an uneven and ungodly amount of candied yams. Food is food! For too long we’ve worried ourselves silly balancing out the meal with obsessive precision! Even if things have been that way for years past, who’s to say it has to stay that way for this holiday onward?
No one expects perfection but you. Few people notice the lengths you went to for that perfect cornucopia centerpiece. Being known as the Martha Stewart of the clan just makes people take your attention to detail for granted. If they do notice that you’ve stopped doing something, that is an opportunity for you to explain new traditions and to focus on the things that matter more: relationships.
If you do less, the truth is, the holidays won’t look like they usually do, but the person who notices this most is you, and others will be forgiving - a lack of décor or mismatched silverware is the last thing on their minds. Who knows, if your holiday guests notice that you are too tired to go the extra mile this year, there’s a good chance they’ll pick up the slack. And even if they don’t - the key is to know that’s ok too.
Asking for help
As the hostess with the mostess, you make it look easy, but gathering everyone together can be overwhelming, even for you. Make your life easier by asking for help. It doesn’t make you helpless - on the contrary, it’s empowering to assert yourself and request a favor here and there.
You don’t have to do it all. Delegate tasks that others can do. People at family gatherings often feel like lumps on a log - restless and eager to help. Keep them busy with tasks that don’t need you - let them take drink orders, add festive music to the playlist, greet guests at the door and take coats.
When you do less, you notice more. I noticed how much more centered I feel when I can just…be among people who I cherish, without planning, controlling and feeling responsible for their fun. Gathering as a family is hard enough in itself - you already checked the box. You celebrated the holidays. Whatever happens, happens.
So take a little off your plate this year. No, don’t literally take food off your plate. Go ahead and eat that third helping of turkey. And if no one stepped up to cook a turkey - a store bought rotisserie isn’t the worst thing that can happen to your family. You’ll see things turn out just fine even when you let it go.
This holiday season, make this your new mantra: simplicity is key, and good enough is good enough.
Karen Lenz is the Executive Assistant at People Bloom Counseling. She’s the office admin whiz - not a therapist. She writes blog posts as a human navigating this world, a client sitting across from a therapist, much like you. She is thankful to get to share her experiences with you, and she’s starting to realize that when things go all wrong at Thanksgiving, that’s part of the fun because it makes a great story to re-tell at every family dinner for generations to come.