Several years ago I met with a patient to discuss ways she could cope with the holiday season after losing a loved one. She confessed to feeling especially overwhelmed with the thought of Christmas, as each year in the past it had been a tradition for her to decorate three large Christmas trees.
She was tearful as she explained it had been a family tradition. Despite feeling overwhelmed by grief and exhausted, she knew her family would once again expect to see all three of the trees with lights and decorations.
The keyword here is expected.
Expectations are made up of the stories we tell ourselves about how things are “supposed” to be.
The problem for my patient was that she simply did not feel up to decorating three trees and for good reasons. But she had set herself up to think that those trees were “supposed” to be decorated or else…what? Or else the holiday would be ruined?
Any time we use words like “supposed to,” “should” or “must”, we are setting ourselves up for “all or nothing” thinking. All or nothing is usually not an effective way to think. It leaves little room for the realities in life. When we lose a loved one it is reasonable to be sad. What my patient needed the most that year was time to be sad, to acknowledge the reasonable feeling of loss and to be with her family.
Turns out one tree was just enough that year.
Kym Hansen-Duell, LMSW, ACSW is a licensed social worker at the Pine Rest Traverse City Clinic. Kym has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Central Michigan University and a Master of Social Work from Grand Valley State University. She is a member of the National Association of Social Workers and the Academy of Certified Social Workers. Kym is available to speak at community events on topics such as ADHD, depression, parenting, family issues and workplace stress.