The 2 Most Underrated Strategies for a Peaceful (and Sane) Holiday Season - Holiday Tips
For some of us the holiday season is filled with joy, generosity and gratitude. For others, the holidays bring memories of disappointment and inadequacy, feelings of anxiety, or maybe just a low-level bah humbug of indifference.
Years ago, before I met my husband, I was a modern-day Scrooge. Just thinking about the approaching holiday season filled me with dread. The gift giving felt forced, the holiday cheer insincere and the family expectations were simply ridiculous. My favorite part of the holiday season was when it was all over and I could breathe a sigh of relief. Over the years, however, we have created family holiday celebrations that feel real, joyful and most importantly, manageable.
More than any other time of year the holidays can be fraught with unspoken expectations. Years of unsatisfactory experiences can leave us feeling depressed and anxious, rather than ready to face the winter lights with joy. Our personal histories of how expectations have been met, or not met, colors our whole experience of the holidays – the parties, the gift exchanges, how we relate with family and friends.
As parents there is even more pressure to manage these unspoken expectations. Not only our own assumptions of what we can/want/are able to create for our family, but also the expectations of spouses, extended family and children to manage in addition to our own.
It’s always helpful to remind ourselves that we can’t control anyone else’s behavior or responses. We can, however, be proactive in how we prepare ourselves and our children to celebrate the holiday season with a sense of humor and humility.
Two important strategies at the center of creating meaningful family celebrations are setting intentions and managing expectations. This is true for celebrations throughout the year, from birthdays to anniversaries to holidays, and even more so for the assumption-laden time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
Let’s begin with agreeing that setting intentions is NOT the same as setting a goal. Goals are things that you DO. They are what fill our to-do lists and generally are celebrated with a sense of accomplishment. Intentions, on the other hand, are about ways of BEING. We set intentions to be kind, or patient, or to remember stop and breathe. Intentions are most powerful, not as another way to beat ourselves up for not being good enough, but as a way to check-in with how we are doing in in this moment. Think about that old Verizon ad, and ask yourself “Do I feel patient now?” and maybe later in the day, “How about now?”
I’m a huge believer that that all families can benefit from setting intentions at any time of year. During the time leading up to the holidays getting clear about your intentions becomes even more helpful as a strategy for staying sane and managing anxiety and stress. So what does setting intentions look like?
It’s helpful to begin with what’s really important to you as a family. Maybe it’s teaching your children to trust themselves, or to be resilient in the face of adversity, or helping those in need. Maybe it’s being kind to others or working hard.
In our house we have a decided it’s important to create predictable rituals, celebrate the abundance of our life and practice giving. So we give a set number of gifts, most of them small, under $20. Among these gifts everyone gets a book, some new music, something consumable (like chocolate or coffee), and a pair of really nice socks. After that there are a few more small gifts unique to the recipient and then one “big” gift. This framework allows us to both managing expectations AND include a bit of surprise. I’m not suggesting that you should adopt this particular method, but just using it to illustrate what intentional holiday gifting looks like in our house.
Another way to think about setting intentions is to use what I call the rocking chair test. To do this imagine you’re older, maybe in your 80s, sitting in your rocking chair and looking back over your life. When you think about this particular holiday season, what do you want to remember? It could be connection, warmth or brightness. Maybe you want to create memories of coziness, the joy of spending time with friends and family or a sense of abundance and gratitude. Any one of these would be a fine intention. Remember, after another 40 or 50 years chances are you’re not going to remember the wrapping paper or even the gifts themselves. And you’re also probably not going to remember more than a couple things about any given year’s festivities.
TRY THIS: Right now, take a few minutes and write down a few intentions you’d like to propose to your family this season. [For more details on how to identify your family’s intentions and how to write a family manifesto click here.]
The second strategy that every proactive mamma needs in her toolkit is how to manage expectations. This is just a fancy way of saying make a plan. By this I mean both to think about what you’d like to have happen and, at the same time, don’t let yourself get too attached to your preferred outcome. In the world of education, we refer to this as planning tight and hanging loose. I’m a huge fan of helping my kid manage her expectation BEFORE we even leave the house. Sometimes this sounds like: “I know it’s hard to leave at the end of the party. What do you need to be able to say good-bye well?” I may offer suggestions for ways to be gracious and say thank you even when the gift isn’t something you love. Or we might have a conversation about what to do when someone comes in for an unwelcome hug.
When she was younger, on any given day I might have guided my toddler by choosing ONE thing to focus on. Now that my daughter is in first grade, I might give her two different things to think about. Again, the idea is to get clear about what’s the most important (limited to one or two things) and then give yourself and your kids a break on everything else.
Sometimes I find it’s helpful to manage expectations for the grown ups too, starting with myself. Instead of worrying about not wanting to socialize once I’m at the party - I’m a self-diagnosed introvert - I offer myself a smaller task like being kind to people or introducing myself to 3 new people. It can also be helpful to talk with my partner about his intentions and expectations for any given event. And in the moments when I feel brave, I might even broach the subject of managing expectations throughout the holiday season, especially around gifts, with my parents.
There are certainly other ideas that are helpful during the holiday season. Slowing down. Saying no. Simplifying. Remembering to be gentle with yourself and kind to others. Not getting too attached to the outcomes, or the story you want to have happen. These reminders, along with a family conversation about intentions and some thoughtful planning are my secret magic for creating a holiday season worth remembering.
4 TIPS 4 MINDFUL PARENTING
Slow it down: Stop. Feel your feet on the ground. Take a deep breath.
Be gentle: Lighten up. Find the humor. Offer kindness to yourself. Often.
Practice letting go: Of your assumptions of how things should be. Of your stories about what is going to happen next.
Take care of others: Be kind to people, especially those in your family. Practice asking, “What do you need?”
By Andra Brill, Ph.D.
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