How to Enjoy a Not-So-Perfect Holiday

How to Enjoy a Not-So-Perfect Holiday

A perfectly browned Thanksgiving turkey, a magical Christmas filled with just the right presents, a Hanukkah celebration rivaling those you remember from childhood…everyone has holiday expectations.

Planning for the perfect holiday often creates pain and disappointment when the idealistic expectations cannot be met. Setting unrealistic expectations often happens subtly when you forget that magazines, TV and internet don’t accurately portray the reality of family holidays. Even your own memories of past holidays contain an unrealistic magical tint or larger than life sense of calamity.

Expectations create problems when they aren’t based upon reality.

Expecting things to be the same as they have always been.

Unfortunately, life rarely remains the same. Children become adults, siblings get married, we have children, parents pass away, friends get divorced, and spouses develop chronic illness. These things change what it is realistic to expect during the holidays. When you insist the holidays must remain the same in the face of changing life circumstances, you create unattainable expectations bound to bring disappointment.

Expecting things to be different.

People have an amazing ability to change and adapt. However, people don’t change without deliberately working at it and without observable evidence of change in their daily lives. Expecting Mom to be less critical, Dad to be more emotionally present, or Uncle Fred to stay sober without any evidence they have worked to change is the perfect recipe for disappointment and anger.

A recipe for realistic expectations.

Avoid both catastrophizing and idealizing.

Realistic expectations use the past to formulate a plan for what is likely to happen currently. This doesn’t mean attempting to recreate the past. Instead, you look at how things have changed from the past and then plan to effectively cope with what is likely to happen as a result of what has changed—and what hasn’t changed.

Keep the focus on what YOU can do to create a healthy and enjoyable experience.

You can only change yourself and this is the key! As you adjust expectations it frees you to make plans to address challenges you are likely to experience.

Ask yourself:

  • If this is what will likely occur, what choices do I have available?
  • What can I do to effectively take care of myself in this situation?
  • How can I enjoy the day even if this is the reality?

Practice graciousness for navigating choppy family holiday waters.

Family relationships are often fraught with difficulty. You can only take responsibility for yourself. You cannot control the thoughts, emotions, or behaviors of others. When family members don’t think, feel, or behave way you wish they would, you can choose to graciously accept they are making choices you don’t understand or like without feeling the need to convince them they are wrong or need to do things differently.

When Aunt Sally spends 20 minutes ranting about “those people who …” rather than argue with her about why she is wrong, try gently responding with, “I can tell you feel very passionately about this” and then work to direct the conversation to a more neutral topic.

Clarify what others are expecting of you and clearly communicate your plans and expectations.

Work schedules, aging parents, in-laws, and young children often make it impossible to meet the expectations of all family members. It is important to take the wishes of those you care about into consideration while also making a plan that allows you to manage the holidays in a healthy fashion.

Attending five different Christmas celebrations in two days to keep your parents, siblings, in-laws, and children happy will likely result in a miserable Christmas for you and everyone else who endures this frantic shuffle.  Instead, determine what is healthy for you and those you are responsible for and then clearly communicate this to everyone who has expectations of you in a timely fashion.

As you put your attention on effectively managing your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors you can create a plan that helps you feel prepared to enjoy the reality of what the holidays bring.


Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and Clinic Manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.

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