Christmas can be an extremely stressful time. You’re surrounded by sentimentalized marketing messages, based on perfect families having a perfect time together. Peace is everywhere; everyone loves their gifts, the Christmas meal is perfectly cooked and no one suffers indigestion or drinks too much. Children are always good and never become over-excited and uncontrollable.
That’s the problem. Real life is far from perfect. Some families don’t get on well together. This maybe the one time of the year they meet, and still they expect nothing to go wrong. Then people eat or drink too much, voices are raised and tempers flare. Maybe there’s a gap this year: a loved one has died, or is far away. Maybe there are no loved ones. People sometimes have to spend Christmas alone. For many people, Christmas will bring more pain than joy; pain made far worse by feeling everyone else is having a good time.
Christmas comes but once a year, and when it comes it brings…wildly unrealistic expectations. There’s a strong sense of how things—and people—ought to be. Everyone ought to be happy. They ought to get along. You ought to be enjoying yourself; and there must be something wrong with you if you aren’t. Along with such crazy expectations come guilt and blame. So people quarrel, and because everyone ought not to be quarreling at Christmas, it’s someone’s fault they aren’t happy.
When this happens, don’t ever be tempted to feel guilty about your emotions, let alone accept responsibility for anyone else’s. Even if you don’t show how you feel, you still feel it. “What’s wrong with me?” you ask yourself. “It’s Christmas. I should be happy. I should be thinking how much I love my family, not focussing on how much Uncle Fred’s drinking upsets me; or how much I’d rather be at home than sitting here, trying to eat my mother-in-law’s inedible turkey; or feeling that if Cousin Jane doesn’t stop her revolting children from behaving like animals, I’m going to scream.”
Here’s the truth. No one can control their emotions. You cannot make yourself feel happy or cheerful by an act of willpower, any more than you can stop yourself from feeling angry or resentful or sad. Emotions simply arise by a natural process. They come as and when they wish, just as thoughts come into our minds unbidden and sometimes unwanted. All you can control is whether or not you act on those emotions. If someone irritates you, but you hold back from showing it to avoid spoiling everyone’s evening, that’s a praiseworthy act. It’s not your fault you felt irritated. It just happened. There’s neither cause for guilt nor blame.
Christmas is a wonderful time of year to practice forgiveness, and especially to forgive yourself. The old year is coming to an end. As it dies, forgive yourself for all the times in this year you destroyed your own hopes and expectations; for the ways you let yourself down; for behaving badly; for messing up. Forgive others for all the ways they disappointed you. Forgive life itself for whatever bad things it brought. Let it all go with the year that is passing. And when the New Year comes, let your first resolution be to stop setting yourself and others so many unreal goals and expectations based on perfection.
Whatever the marketing guys and the media try to tell you, life is messy, unpredictable and frequently unpleasant. That’s just how it is. No one is to blame, least of all you. Buying products won’t change it. Nor will the time of year, however many carols are sung and Santas appear in the stores. Christmas lights aren’t magic talismans against pain, upset or hurt. Just because it’s a holiday season doesn’t mean you ought to feel happy. There’s no reason you should ever feel some particular way; and no way to try to make it happen if it doesn’t come about naturally.
Walk into the New Year with an open mind and a hopeful attitude. Let go of all the baggage you’re carrying. Simply drop it and walk away. All the possibilities of the coming twelve months are before you, so pause on the threshold and enjoy a few moments of anticipation. Then step confidently into your future. While you can’t make that future better than it will be, you can always hope for the best. Who knows? This year you may be right. It sure beats facing the future full of grim expectation of misery and disappointment.
This will be my last posting on this site until January, so I wish you all a calm, relaxed and baggage-free holiday period. And whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or no particular festival at this time, I hope you manage to give Stressmas a miss this year.
Adrian Savage is an Englishman and a retired business executive who lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his thoughts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for anyone who wants to bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership, and The Coyote Within.