Some people are immune to holiday stress. They’re frequently comfortable in their own skin, or maybe just more detached from the onslought of holiday expecations. Perhaps they were raised in a fluid environment without guilt, so the holidays are a time of reunion and celebration without expectation. If these scenarios describe your experience—this post is not for you. This post is for everyone whose holidays take on elusive but tensely disproportionate meaning—everyone who feels anxious, expectant, shameful, even fearful. Here are three reasons the holidays can evoke uncomfortable feelings:
1. Feeling Transparent
Whether you see your family occasionally or often, the holidays are a time for catching up, for taking stock in the year, for measuring milestones, for being painfully reminded of those we have lost, and for receiving updates on how the people in our lives have fared. It’s a time that highlights “achievements” with jobs, relationships, children—even when you wish you could keep these achievements or lack thereof to yourself. The holidays can create a feeling of transparency in front of your seemingly judgmental tribe of family and friends. All the troubles you wanted to keep concealed seem to become exposed, or feel like they will. It’s as if you’re suddenly forced to share parts of yourself that make you feel shame. Even if you don’t atually convey this discomfort to yourself or others, it still causes great anxiety. And for those who arrive single to their respective tables, facing the holidays without a buffer can make you feel even more painfully transparent.
2. The Anticipation of Sentimentality
Holidays are when memories are made. And there’s pressure to create memories—to design an experience that will be appreciated as sentimental in retrospect. Building tradition seems mandatory, but the anticipation that this year’s holiday ritual will be sentimental detracts from its ability to become sentimental. Instead of experiencing these moments, you begin to anticipate in advance what the experience is supposed to be and you inadvertently compare it to what your other experiences have been, or to what you perceive others’ experiences to be.
Holiday sentiment is an experience you have when you are thinking about something in retrospect, it is not something you can create in advance. It doesn’t help that department stores and radio stations start playing Christmas music on November 1st. The overall forced anticipation of the holidays ruins the ability to exist in the moment of the event because no longer are you here, now, in the present, but looking into an idealized and inauthentic future. It's an impossible standard. How can you anticipate being in a moment?
Hundreds of articles have been written about the pressure of expectations on hosts and parents—you feel the need to create an experience that exceeds your guests’ or children’s unrealistically high expectations. In its own right, it's a pressure filled experience. However, there’s another less-explored pressured experience that comes with the expectations of being the child or guest. The expectation is to demonstrate that you’ve “done well” or to show your enjoyment and appreciation, despite what may be significant internal anxiety. You play your part in order to impress, appease, or decrease others’ anxiety. You hope for ways, or create strategies to avoid having to feel transparent. Or perhaps you’re not even aware of what the expectations are. How do you act to meet expectations when you’re unclear what you are trying to meet? The whole experience can make you feel unhinged during the holidays.
These three pressures make everyone feel as if they've come up short. The insistence on a holiday spirit makes having that spirit in an authentic or in-the-moment way yet another impossible-to-meet expectation. As you approach the holidays, learning to identify this dynamic and accept its inevitability can help you manage your anticipations, feelings and experiences. They are what they are. It is unrealistic to avoid anticipating experiences and it undercuts their authenticity. Working to be aware and accepting of your feelings—including anxiety, transparency, shame and uncomfortable anticipation—can help you at least shed the layer of discomfort that having these feelings otherwise creates, and it allows you to go into the holidays working on being okay with who you are and where you are, as you are.
You may continue to feel holiday anxiety, but you can chip away at feeling shameful, unaccepting or uncomfortable about your anxiety. Once you acknowledge and then work towards accepting that the holidays set an unrealistic standard for transparency, sentimentalism and expectations, you may find yourself able to let go and be far more in the moment, because you have taken the experience back and made it your own. Ironically, by releasing your hold on the holiday spirit, you may find it around the holiday table.