The Donner Party. The threatening hordes. The family hurricane.
What do these words have in common? They’re all terms I’ve heard my clients use in the past week, referring to their families and the holidays.
No matter how much “work” you might have done on yourself, spending several days in close quarters with people who really, really know you (but also kinda don’t) can be crazy-making. There are explicit obligations and implied “shoulds.” You may find yourself slipping back into old behaviors like people-pleasing or not speaking up. You might have spent all year practicing asking for what you want, but when it comes to the last Christmas cookie, or making sure that you and your partner get some alone time, “what you want” slides to the bottom of the priority list and you find yourself curled up in a ball wondering what the hell happened.
Keeping your center and staying grounded, even in the chaos, can make for the best holidays yet. In that spirit, here are four questions to help you navigate the holiday season, whether you’re spending them with your blood family, chosen family, or some crazy batch of strangers you haven’t decided if you’re going to keep yet.
Question 1: What can I let go of?
Around the holidays, there are tons of rules and things you “should” do, many of which fall under the heading of “tradition.” The problem is, as you go through life and come into contact with more and more people, the traditions, obligations and expectations multiply. The pressure to participate sometimes comes from other people, and sometimes comes from ourselves. But ask yourself: Do I really HAVE to bake 4 different kinds of cookies? Could I let go of some of the decorations this year? Would the world REALLY end if I don’t go the Boxing Day brunch? What would actually happen if I took a nap instead of going to the movies this afternoon with 12 relatives?
Simplify your holiday season by opting out of the things you are doing for no good reason. Check out what you can legitimately just let go of. Ask the people around you how it would be for them if you did things a little differently this year. Remember too, that a no to one thing is a yes to something else.
Question 2: What can I accept is so?
Your ex has always been a bit of a space cadet. Your mom knows EVERYTHING. (Or at least acts like it.) You know your dad is going to grumble about making dinner. This is the third year your partner has tried to quit smoking for New Year’s and he’s ALWAYS a jerk for 3 days. And the kids never fail to wake you up at 5am Christmas morning.
Getting angry with people for being who they are, and not being what you want them to be is a massive source of stress, especially over the holidays. Wishing they were different is one thing. Getting angry because they’re the way they are is like getting angry because it’s raining when you want to go on a picnic. If you find yourself saying that so-and-so “always” or “never” does something, then maybe it’s time to consider that that’s how it is, and make an alternate plan or adjust your expectations.
Much like a rainy day picnic, accepting what’s so is about finding workarounds and alternative plans. Which means – get creative! If your dad is going to grumble about making dinner, maybe it’s time to find a different chef. If the kids will wake you up at 5am, plan for quiet time after all the presents are opened and squeeze a nap in. If your mom wants to tell you about all of the things, be curious and ask her questions about things she actually DOES know a lot about. And tell your partner that you support his non-smoking, but you’ll be taking a little space for a few days.
Question 3: What can I do for me?
It’s so easy to get swept up in the spirit of giving that your bank account shrivels, your waistline expands, and you start to feel haggard and grinch-y. Before long, you’re snapping at the people you care about, and you’re wondering if it’s too late to return all those gifts and buy a ticket to Tahiti (or Tallahassee). Alone.
It’s time to do something for yourself. Take a page from my dad’s book and buy something you really want and wrap it up with a note from Santa. Or, take a deep breath every 20 minutes. Schedule a real vacation for a few months down the road. Go to a yoga class. Trade babysitting with the neighbors to get a night alone. Go for a run. Set aside some of those cookies you made into a special “me only” tin for you to enjoy after the hordes descend.
(If you find yourself saying, “but there’s no time!” may I refer you back up to the first question: What can you let go of?)
Question 4: What will I opt out of next year?
Much of the time we end up doing stuff over the holidays because someone else set it into motion before we had a chance to figure out which way is up. You can get sucked up into another person’s vision for the holidays, and before you know it, you are trapped in a three-day “It’s a Wonderful Life” marathon.
This is really about setting expectations early and often. If it’s too late to salvage the holidays this year, plan for next year and start setting boundaries now. Appreciate what’s good about being here or doing this thing now, while you’re in it, and then, tell the relevant person that you won’t be participating next year. Think about what you’d rather do instead. Set up a reminder for yourself for next year, so that it pops up between Halloween and Thanksgiving.
(Note to self: DON’T commit to Aunt Edna’s Handel-Messiah-sing-along-and-all-you-can-eat-buffet next year. DO schedule with Jamie and Casey EARLY.)
Best wishes for a very happy holiday season and a spectacular New Year.
Sizzling conversation starters, major myth-busting, and stuff you can actually use.
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