photo by Rob Carmichael

Holding Hazel, a rescued sloth

Source: photo by Rob Carmichael

Unrealistic expectations are a major cause of holiday stress. They can be too high, such as imagining the perfect family gathering, just the right gifts, or the most stunning decorations. On the other hand, expectations may be too low. There are those among us who unnecessarily expect the worst, causing them to dread their family time, e.g., "Will the aunt who overindulges in alcohol get drunk and create havoc?” “Will everyone be able to set aside differences and get along for at least one day?” There is also the fear of boredom, especially for teens and young adults likely to get caught in conversations of no interest to them. Sadly, there are many who are grieving over the holidays due to the loss of a loved one or the anniversary of a death that occurred in past holiday seasons. For those grieving, a common expectation is that the holiday just “won’t be the same” and instead will be miserable. Of course, it cannot be the same, but it doesn’t have to be miserable either.

A change in expectation might make all the difference. The following are seven suggestions intended to help relieve stress due to any of a wide variety of expectations.

1. Remember that most families are far from perfect.

Social scientists have reported that 85 percent of families are dysfunctional in some way, making it the norm to be considered a dysfunctional family. To quote Mary Karr, “I think a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.” Rather than feeling embarrassed by your family’s eccentricity, try to embrace it and keep it in perspective.If you have reason to be concerned that the situation will truly get terrible for anyone, try to have a backup plan such as leaving early or separating to take a walk and returning after a break.

2. Focus on doing what you really enjoy; don’t try to do everything.

Likely some of your traditions are meaningful and fun, while others are just done because that’s the way it’s always been. Consider letting go of the routines that don’t really add much to your holiday experience and just add to your exhaustion.

3. Take time to relax.

Play with your kids, cuddle with the pets, or spend time alone if that’s what it takes. A constantly busy schedule is not relaxing for most people, so try to plan some down time for yourself.

4. Change it up.

Try something new and easier. If you are the host for the holiday, simplify the meal plan or ask everyone to pitch in and contribute something. A celebration is always better when the hosts are happy too.

5. Practice gratitude.

Everyone has someone or something to be grateful for. Try not to take anything for granted. Even if you are missing someone this season, be grateful for the people that are with you.

6. Spread out the family visits.

Don’t try to visit the whole family on the same day. This can create too much stress for everyone involved, especially if you have young children. I have worked with young couples for whom both sets of parents are divorced. Taking the children to see all of the grandparents can mean four homes to visit, which is about three too many for any one day.

7. Be mindful of what you’re celebrating.

It might be a holy day, a day off from work, or a chance to see friends and family. Celebrate something, and focus on the people who are with you at this time in your life. Life is very precious and worth celebrating, even with all of its imperfections.

Have a peaceful and happy holiday season. May your hearts be full of love, your minds with thoughts of gratitude, and your spirits with hope.

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