3 Holiday Expectations that Are Making you Crazy (and how to change them)

Turn on the television this time of year, and it’s easy to think that you can do and have everything–love, money, all your dreams come true–because it’s the holidays. It’s not that the holidays make things automatically better or easier (I’d argue the opposite)–the difference is we want it to be. And anyone selling anything during the holidays knows just what nerve to hit to sustain that expectation.

So there’s extra pressure to make sure that everything that does happen right around now is: Emotionally resonant. Beautifully decorated. Perfectly timed. Joyous. Well-lit.

Well, no wonder your stress spikes right about now (mine, too). Our expectations are ridiculously high. Sometimes they’re not even fully articulated. Instead, they show up as outsized meltdowns over little things–the sibling who was snippy at dinner, the gingerbread cookies that have too much baking powder.

At meQuilibrium, we call these deep-rooted, age-old ideas about how the world should work Iceberg Beliefs. They’re called Icebergs because only the tip is visible to your conscious mind. The rest lumbers under water, far out of awareness.

Holiday-themed icebergs can be especially devastating, as popular culture constantly reinforces high-stakes ideas about the season, like “everyone loves each other at Christmas” and “if I don’t get this holiday right, I’m failing my family.” (Read more about coping with Iceberg Beliefs.)

The holidays do indeed have the potential to be a tender, happy time, when we lovingly share in each other’s joy. But rather than letting half-hidden beliefs and expectations govern how you feel, it’s worth your while to try rewriting these common old stories for yourself, so that you can love the holidays as they are, not how they should be.

Stressful Belief #1: My family should get along during the holidays. Maybe the family in question is your mother and father, or your children, or even your co-workers. But the need for people to treat each other and you well around the holidays can be intense, leaving you disappointed, resentful, and hurt.

Try this: Seek out loving friendship.  If this belief aligns with a core value for you, such as strong emotional connections, embrace it while trimming away some of the pain it creates. In this case, be proactive about filling the well of connection for yourself. In the midst of all the holiday parties, reach out to one or two good friends or family members and get a date on the calendar for a brunch, dinner, what have you. Or offer to help with a cookie-making marathon. The event doesn’t have to be special–your relationship is what will sustain you when your family squabbles over the turkey dinner again. (Read more about how to boost your resilience including via powerful connections.)

Stressful Belief #2: I must make this the perfect holiday. Look deep enough and you probably can see the roots of this in childhood, when something along the lines of “if I do x, then my parents will love me,” was a powerful tool of control. Now, though, you’ve outgrown its usefulness. All this belief does now is drive you to distraction and keep you from appreciating the holidays you’ve actually got.

Try this: Catch your thoughts. If you find your mind starting to twitch for perfection, closely observe the tickertape of thoughts you’ve got going. Listen for key phrases like “I’m the only one who knows how to do it,” or “If I don’t get this done right, it will be ruined.” Notice how these thoughts feel, and then challenge them: Here I go again, treating Thanksgiving dinner like a death match. It doesn’t make sense in my life to do that anymore. Perfection isn’t the goal.

Then: Focus on your breath, letting it deepen and slow. Tuning into your physical sensations will keep you connected to the present moment–and melt the Iceberg coming straight at you.

Stressful Belief #3. I should give — and get — the perfect gifts. Presents take on extraordinary weight this time of year, as if a chenille scarf or new smartphone can really express the depth and breadth of a person’s love. And even if you do craft the exquisite lavender-scented, silk-covered, organic buckwheat-filled eye pillow, there’s no guarantee the recipient will respond the way you want him to.

Try this: Aim for gratitude. The best way to handle unrealistic Icebergs that you only run into in a very specific situation is to steer around them. In this case, set your sights on gratitude.

During shopping season, keep a gratitude journal and every morning (or evening), write down three to five things you’re grateful for. The morning before you open gifts, send a thank-you text message or email to someone who did something nice for you recently.

When you make gratitude a practice and express it to others, you shore up your own sense emotional well-being. Gift-giving can then be what it really is: a small, sweet moment in a long, rich life. (Read more about the science of gratitude and good health.