As a kid, I was lucky to grow up with mostly joy and excitement around the holidays… but most of that magic faded and morphed into stress the older I got. Now, when my friends crank up the Christmas tunes immediately after Halloween, my anxiety ramps up, peaking the last two weeks of the year.
I chatted about this with my therapist and friends incessantly until I realized that I’m not alone. Not only is it the onset of annual Seasonal Affective Syndrome, there’s also an unrealistic cultural expectation in that we’re forced to maintain the every day stresses of work and life while layering on the added stresses of the season — which can range from financial pressures to social obligations.
Our culture idealizes the last few weeks of the year as a magical time where we’re expected to smile more and work less… yet, for me and many others, everything from overcommitting to social engagements to family drama tends to overshadow that anticipated joy.
I think it’s the unrealistic expectations we set for ourselves to have a ‘Wonderful Life’ as we watch it on TV that makes me feel the opposite of how we’re culturally supposed to feel.
Perhaps if we all just collectively lowered our expectations for holiday bliss we could actually have some holiday ease.
While the last few years haven’t been a walk in a winter wonderland for me, each year I return home I come back a little more self-aware. I’ve even accumulated some tools to improve my experience of the season. Below is everything I’ve picked up and plan to include in my tool-belt this year. Think of this as your first holiday buffet — take the tools that resonate with you out for a spin and leave the rest!
Focus on the good —
I tend to focus on the areas of lack in my life year round, but particularly during the holidays. I start comparing my outfits, meals, parties, gifts, and experiences to everyone else’s. This leads to dread, pressure, and stress. An activity I’ve started doing with myself is making a list of all the things I do actually enjoy about my version of the holidays in the pre-season. During some particularly dark years I’ve admittedly had to really dig, but just the act of jotting down these positive things to look forward to, helps me to focus on the time off work more and the dysfunction less.
Concern yourself with YOU —
I believe our outside experiences are a reflection of our internal state. Therefore, I’ve started using my life experiences (including awkward interactions, uncomfortable fights, and dysfunction) as a mirror to see where I’m feeling insecure. I can’t control other people, but I can use my responses as an opportunity to reflect and examine the interaction that’s causing me an intense reaction. Artist and author Florence Florence Scovel Shinn said, “No one is your friend, no one is your enemy, everyone is your teacher.” At my best, I look at the holidays as my ideal personalized classroom for personal growth where I can examine exactly what in me is causing my stress, anxiety, and discomfort and why it might be triggered.
Give and receive with ease —
Receiving can be awkward and giving can come with an equal amount of pressure. (In fact, I wrote an entire essay about my hang-ups with giving.) What I’ve found is that the best gifts aren’t expensive — rather they’re homemade, from the heart, or are things you genuinely enjoy that you want to share your excitement over. This takes the pressure away from finding the perfect gift and allows you to find the gift that would be the most fun for you to give.
In regards to receiving, I’m a minimalist who does one of two things upon being gifted: either immediately plan how I can re-gift, or, if it is something I genuinely want, stress about how I can reciprocate with an equally generous gift. In neither of these instances am I actually being present — the real gift to the giver. I’ve learned that I’m robbing the giver of the cozy feeling they’re looking for by not receiving with grace. Lately I’ve been trying to be more present and genuinely accept the gesture regardless of how I feel about the actual gift.
Minimize family drama —
I tend to revert to old childhood behaviors and patterns around my family — traits I feel far removed from in my non-holiday life. No matter how much therapy I do or how many self-help books I read, there’s something about family that presses my buttons more than anything else. However, I’ve found that by slowing down to enjoy the moment and being present I’m better able to accept my family as they are, without expectations or a desire to have them change. I am able to step back and actually appreciate all of their unique quirks. And lastly… there’s always caffeine! The energy of family can sometimes be very slow, so adding caffeine, whether it’s coffee or tea, can help balance this out.
Maintain a healthy relationship with food and drink —
There are so many articles out there outlining how to avoid overindulging during the holidays. I, however, disagree with that school of thought. For me, the holidays are a time to indulge and truly enjoy special food and drinks. Denying yourself of these pleasures will likely lead to feeling deprived or binge eating later. As much as I’ve overindulged and felt uncomfortable, I’ve also over-deprived myself and missed out on the connection that can come from sharing a special meal. Enjoyment of the season should come not only from food but also from conversations, connections, and traditions.
Make realistic expectations —
I’m someone who tends to take on more than is comfortable, even during the off-season. So if I’m not careful and don’t purposely pace myself, the holidays can become a time of particular business. Make a list and prioritize the important activities you’ve got coming up. As much as I’ll ignore it, the fact is, I can’t do everything. The more honest and realistic I am about what I want to do and don’t want to do helps me be more present where I choose to spend my time. I can have cozy, meaningful, and long interactions — rather than hurried, surface-level ones.
‘Tis the season to be jolly… to YOURSELF —
Amp up the self care rather than abandon it. When I maintain my usual routines like movement, meditation, and journaling I feel more like myself and can stay connected in my body rather than disassociate. Don’t get me wrong, this can be tough during the holidays with all of the distractions and travel, but it’s important to try to maintain at least some of your tried and true every day routine. And if you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up over it… simply return to your routines when you can. Some of my favorite self care practices to maintain during the holidays are journaling, spending time alone to set intentions and self reflect, saying no to invitations, and leaving the party whenever I please… without feeling bad about it!
Create calendar space to say yes to yourself. And just maybe you’ll be the best gift of all.
Katie Dalebout is a writer, host, and the founder of Let [a podcast] Out, a workshop that helps people DIY podcast. Since 2013 she has interviewed over 250 people on her long-form interview show, Let It Out. Her first book, Let It Out: A Journey Through Journaling (2016) is a collection of personal essays and journaling prompts. Read more of her musings and feelings in her monthly Let It Out Letter. Katie, her feelings, and all of her plants live together in Manhattan.