Christmas is nearly here. Argos queues stretch out the door. Amazon drones cause Gatwick delays, maybe. ASDA is buzzing — broccoli, best before Boxing Day, is 20p at the moment. Deals in every aisle, from every brand, at every outlet, everywhere.
Friends back in town. Family gatherings aplenty. Football’s festive fixtures. Parties, Pringles, party poppers, pickled onions, presents. Presents! Do you have all your presents, yet?
With its cultural significance, the pressure to have a perfect Christmas is palpable. Like the myth of romantic love, we’re bombarded with unrealistic portrayals of how things should be. Of course, all of us want to enjoy the special day. Strive for perfection, though, and you will find yourself struggling under the weight of expectation.
Internalise the Christmas Myth, and the 25th December is loaded with should statements. These are cognitive distortions psychologists note contribute to anxiety, depression, stress, and other distressing emotions. Should statements can be self-directed, directed at others, or directed at the world. This conflicts with things as they are, which is exhausting.
This article includes tips to manage common shoulds related to Christmas, allowing you to enjoy the day free from pressure of expectations. So, grab a mince pie and read on.
I’m dreaming of a perfect Christmas…
Expectations are comparisons. You compare the present experience to a mental image of how the day should be. You compare how your day should be with another mental image of how you expect your day will unfold. Expectations are resistance to what is. Without realising, we often spend time rapidly comparing our direct experience with mental expectations.
Generally speaking, the more demanding the expectation, the more stress or disappointment will arise. Awareness is the first step in overcoming these beliefs.Try the below exercise to highlight your unique Christmas shoulds.
All I want for Christmas is… 100% positivity 24/7 all the time?
Emotional perfectionism is a distorted belief about how you should feel. Pleasant emotions are desired and challenging emotions are judged as bad or unwanted. In her brilliant Ted Talk, psychologist Susan David explains positivity as a “new form of moral correctness,” denying the richness of human experience. Her response to clients who wish certain feelings go away? “I understand,” she says, “but those are dead people’s goals.”
Blunt, but true. For example, I developed the belief I shouldn’t feel nervous. I believed emotionally healthy people didn’t experience any nerves. These beliefs created inner turmoil every time I had the faintest flutter of anxiety. This is a poor coping mechanism because unresolved or ignored emotions return, stronger. The feeling returned, re-energised. I’d panic.
At Christmas emotional perfectionism increases, due to the myth the day should be joyous, happy, carefree. That’d be lovely, wouldn’t it? But attempting to filter certain emotions leads to suppression, or frustration or shame when they arise. Anyone suffering from depression or anxiety may have experienced this unpleasant dynamic. I’ve spent numerous Christmases wishing I could flick a switch and turn on happiness, just for the day. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that.
In reality, the year end is a time to reflect, emotions are running high. The loss of those no longer in our lives is heightened. The temptation is to put on a brave face and “get on with it.” But it’s important to take a moment to sit with loss and difficult emotions. Remember the good times, cry. With a little alchemy, attention and compassion, loss often transforms into appreciation.
While reflecting, it’s worth challenging accompanying shoulds. Reframe statements like “I should be happy” to “I’d like to enjoy Christmas and feel happy, but challenging emotions may arise. If they do, doesn’t mean I’ve failed.” I recommend sharing this exercise with a close friend or family member. Though feels everyone else has it worked out, you’ll be surprised how universal these emotional expectations are!
The power of acceptance
“If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” — Ram Dass.
Acceptance is the Holy Grail for evaporating expectations. But it’s often misunderstood. It isn’t an act in itself, but the state of mind arising the moment you stop resisting reality. It is a quality cultivated by the absence of wishing things were different.
At Christmas, we may wish the day unfolds in alignment to perfect expectations. We may wish our family matches the perfect image of how families should be. When these expectations aren’t met, we become annoyed or frustrated.
Ram Dass’ quote is playful, but based in truth. Familial relationships are challenging due to closeness and shared history. A degree of annoyance is understandable, perhaps inevitable. But resistance or wishing things were different causes unnecessary tension. Accepting family as they are, in all their colourful, unique, beautiful imperfection, creates harmony.
Acceptance isn’t passivity, though. We become flexible and unstuck from habitual behaviours when we see things as they really are. Then we take action by communicating our needs or making necessary adjustments. Changing the dynamic of familial relationships may feel impossible, but it’s never too late to created updated, healthy boundaries.
For example, my family talk… a lot. I love them for it but I can’t keep up, even as a talker myself. So I’ve expressed my need for quiet time. I explained I’m sometimes overwhelmed, and if I zone out of conversation, it’s nothing personal.
Acceptance allowed me to empathise — their excitable chatter is a symptom of their appreciation that I’m home, as I’m away for most of the year. From this perspective it was easier to express my needs with compassion, from the heart.
This works both ways. Our relationships harmonise when we ask others what their needs are, and listen attentively to the response. These honest conversations are generally avoided because they make us vulnerable. But if we pluck the courage to instigate these conversations, we’ll notice everything flows smoother.
Cultivating genuine appreciation
Intellectually bullying ourselves to appreciate good fortune is futile. If you don’t believe me, recollect a time you told yourself you should appreciate something — how did you feel? My guess is you felt guilty or bad for being ungrateful. Now, recollect a time of genuine appreciation. I imagine it appeared spontaneously, without needing to think.
This is intellectual barrier is strengthened around Christmas, but there is an solution. One of my favourite aspects of spiritual practice is experientially cultivating appreciation. I call this gratitude from ground zero. Whereas fearful comparison justifies appreciation by looking at how bad things could be, gratitude recognises everything you have with loving abundance. In a world where the majority feel a perpetual sense of lack, this simple switch in mindset is immensely powerful.
Gratitude from ground zero wipes the slate clean. It’s an attempt to view your life situation with fresh eyes. Simultaneously, we let go of concepts of how our lives should be, or how things need to be for us to be truly happy. To give this a go, list five (or more) things you’re grateful for, and move on. Let go of expectations of what gratitude will provide. If possible, do this daily. With space to flourish, appreciation magically bubbles to the surface.
A word of warning: occasionally appreciation announces itself spectacularly. But mostly it is a subtle hum, noticeable when the clutter of expectation is removed from the mind. Watch out for emotional perfectionism framing subtle appreciation as “not good enough,” thus invalidating its existence.
A word on alcohol
Alcohol has been deeply ingrained in society for hundreds of years. But its cultural acceptance masks its impact. This year a major global study discovered there is no level of “safe” drinking. As well as a number of physical health risks, alcohol reduces serotonin, the chemical associated with happiness. Alcohol is a natural depressant linked with psychosis, self-harm and suicide.
These are side effects anyone suffering from depression needs to consider. In the past, to escape unwanted feelings, I’d medicate with drink. When hungover, anxiety would skyrocket, energy would plummet, my mood would reach unpleasant lows. Drinking provided temporary relief but reversed the hard work of carefully cultivating a lifestyle to improve my mental health.
So I decided to abstain completely, after slowly reducing my intake. My mood is much more stable and I believe this is a big factor. This’ll be my first Christmas without alcohol and the pressure to indulge increases this time of year. Interestingly, this decision has revealed a source of anxiety was the knowledge of the cumulative effect day-after-day boozing would have on my mood.
If you’re tempted to be teetotal, remember drinking is not an obligation — though it may feel that way. It takes resilience to sip soft drinks when faced with beer pressure, but if you want to cut back to benefit your wellbeing, stick to your guns and smile. You don’t have to abstain completely, but small changes can reduce consumption; meet a friend for coffee, alternate alcohol with water, or if you’re daring, communicate your need to cut back for the sake of your mental health.
Last but not least…
Well, there we go! This is my last post of 2018. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year. Thank you so much for supporting MindThatEgo throughout the year. Expect more content in 2019.
And remember, there’s no such thing as perfect.