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Rachel Hershenberg Ph.D.
Rachel Hershenberg Ph.D.

Why the Resentment?

When you take on the lion's share of the holiday preparations

The winter holidays provide an annual context to gather with family. This dedicated time to spend together fosters connection and provides shared memories to carry in the years to come. Unfortunately, alongside feelings of closeness, feelings of resentment can also be engendered. Especially for the person taking on the bulk of the responsibility for the gathering — no matter whose house it will be in — resentment often simmers, bubbles, and sometimes even explodes. Feeling resentful because you are giving more than you’re getting can impinge on your ability to be in the moment, and can tarnish the feelings of warmth and closeness you much prefer to cultivate.

Let’s take a quintessential pattern many people fall into: the tradition in which you are the one to handle “everything.” In other words, you take control of the holiday preparations so well that it’s easier for the rest of the family to steer clear. They may assume that you love this [lack of] division of labor, or they may be concerned that if they pitch in, they won’t do it “right.” In any case, through the years the family has gotten used to you doing the lion's share of the work.

What can you do to minimize these feelings of resentment?

1. Ask for help, and be willing to tolerate the less-than-perfect help you receive.

If you allow yourself to acknowledge vulnerability, then you can honestly tell others that you are feeling a bit overwhelmed and would love help from respective family members. Think about what you’d like help with, and make these requests calmly, earnestly, and in advance. Perhaps most importantly, try to make each request as concrete and specific as possible (e.g., a vegetarian side dish that serves 20 people and can be eaten cold that needs to be at the house by 4 p.m. on Monday).

That said, for this suggestion to be helpful, you must be willing to tolerate that the contributions will not be perfect. That vegetarian side dish, the flowers chosen, and the table settings will not be perfect because, simply put, you were not the one to do it. This is where I encourage you to notice your drive for perfection and come back to the value of the holiday, whether it is to come together as a family, for a sense of spiritual connection, or for an opportunity to cultivate gratitude. If the imperfection does not take away from the value of the holiday, then aim for “good enough,” and enjoy that you had one less thing to do.

2. Experiment with not giving 100 percent.

Drop a few details you assume are needed to have everything done “just right.” What if you bought the pie dough pre-made, or you didn’t put out flowers at all? Consider dropping some of the details that habitually push you from “busy” to “stressed and irritated.” Consider it an experiment, and follow-up during and after the event. Did family and friends still enjoy themselves? Did the room still look warm and inviting nevertheless? Was there actually enough food on the table? Experiment with giving just a little bit less, and see if it leads you to feeling freer and able to enjoy the process of the preparation a little more.

3. Embrace your inner holiday perfectionist, and simply ask to be acknowledged.

If the first two suggestions make your heartbeat quicken, then it is likely time to embrace your inner holiday perfectionist. Rather than stew in resentment, understand that you prefer to be the one in the driver’s seat of the holiday. If that is the case, maybe what you are actually looking for is some acknowledgement. Perhaps you feel like it is just assumed you’ll do all you do, and what's more, perhaps you’re feeling taken for granted.

If that is the case, tell one or two trusted family members how you feel in advance of the holiday. Tell them from a place of honesty — rather than heat of the moment anger — that you “love to bring everyone together and do all you do, but it would feel really nice to be appreciated for it.” Moreover, consider expressing what would feel good to you — perhaps you even ask the family to chip in to get you a massage after the holidays as a big thank you. Take a moment and ask yourself, “Do I just want to be acknowledged?” If yes, think about the more responsive family members who might help the rest of the team set that very valid request into action.

The holidays bring with them an uncanny desire to put on your best effort. Though this desire can be admirable, it can also cross-over into that land of overcontrol, a desire for perfection, and resentment because you’re the one responsible for so much. This holiday season, ask yourself what would help you feel less resentful of others, and consider either asking for help, lessening the load, or owning up to the truth that you do love to work this hard — but maybe it might be nice to be recognized for it. However you feel about all of this preparation is likely valid — I just encourage you to take a few minutes to reflect on your needs and how best to meet them, so that you can maximize your enjoyment this holiday season.

If you liked this post, don't forget to check out part 1, Why the Guilt, and part 2, Why the Embarrassment, in this five-part holiday series. Read on for part 4, Why the Irritation.

About the Author
Rachel Hershenberg Ph.D.

Rachel Hershenberg, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University.

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