Keep Calm and Holiday On

Do you hold a snapshot of how the perfect holiday ought to be? Is your vision rooted more in fantasy than reality?

The notion of the ideal holiday, whatever that might entail for you, can create unwelcome pressure throughout the holiday season. The details of the picture may be a result of nostalgia for a particular moment in time – such as when children were younger or when family members who have passed away were present – or a reaction to unpleasant holidays past. No matter how you’ve arrived at your standard of ideal, setting this unrealistic expectation is likely to lead to disappointment.

How can you best live your holidays as they actually are, instead of as you want them to be?

Begin by taking note of your expectations. Which expectations are the most misguided, the most misaligned with the reality in front of you? These standards may take the form of an image or present themselves as a series of beliefs of how things “should,” “must” or “ought to” be. Expectations like this often narrowly define what is acceptable, and any violation of what’s acceptable can lead to negative emotions – guilt or anger, perhaps – either at yourself or others.

To make the most out of the present moment of the holiday you’re in, you might try to expand your definition of ideal, to purposefully lower some of those expectations or, if possible, to let go of the vision entirely. If you are holding yourself to an impossible standard in terms of body shape or size, consider aiming for a more three-dimensional definition of self-worth. If you struggle with restrictive eating tendencies and a successful holiday means skipping the sweets, perhaps this means loosening up on rigid food rules. And if you find yourself expecting family members to act entirely differently towards you or one another than they ever have before, you might remind yourself that change is likely to be more incremental than you wish and that what you’re envisioning just might not come to pass this year.

To transition from the ideal to the real, try next to evaluate any positive aspects of your holiday experiences that you might have initially overlooked. Perhaps there are a handful of traditions or people for whom you feel grateful. Maybe the holidays provide an opportunity to connect with old friends or with yourself.  Possibly they allow you to take some time away from work or school, to take a breath, to have a laugh, and to unplug.

Of course, the here-and-now will not only be full of the positives – that’s part of what makes it real. If what’s really happening for you this holiday season is really tough going, try to put the most energy into those things that are within your control to change. You cannot, for example, control a family member’s insensitive comments or what food your host will provide. But you can thoughtfully consider if and how to respond to insensitive comments and you can identify a meal plan or eating goals in advance that will promote health and well-being.

When the environment you’ve landed in is truly toxic, you’ll need an escape plan, such as a supportive person you can call or visit to help you stay mindful of your goals or to help you generate some new strategies to adapt to the situation at hand. Bottom line: If you struggle with an eating disorder, you are likely to benefit from advance planning of actionable ideas that will serve you and your recovery, rather than your illness, this holiday season.

As you work to adjust expectations and let go of any vision of “perfect,” you may find yourself with a little more mental and emotional space. Consider capitalizing on this space by taking the opportunity to simply be in the moment. Appreciate your ability to, at best, enjoy and, at least, tolerate the present.  Inasmuch as holidays represent rituals and milestones, you have made it to (and soon, through!) another holiday season, and that’s not nothing; in fact, it’s quite a gift you’ll have given yourself. So in the days ahead, keep calm and holiday on.

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