Like anything – holidays, birthdays, other celebrations – Christmas is going to be a little bit different this year. All the changes and compromises that will have to be made are going to be hard on most people, especially those that love Christmas and look forward to it all year. If you have a certain expectation of how this Christmas is going to me, especially if you’re used to perfection, you may be in for some disappointment.
We spoke to Sally Baker, to give you some tips on how to manage your expectations this year. Sally is a highly experienced licensed and certified senior therapist, speaker and published author. She teaches powerful self-help therapeutic approaches to improve and maintain on-going positive mental health.
1. “This year is going to be so hard. Christmas is everything to me, and I’m struggling with the notion that we’re not going to be able to celebrate as we usually do. How can I get my head around the fact it’s just going to be different this year?”
Sally: The truth is it is unavoidable that Christmas will be different for most people this year. Even if you’re able to see some of your family and friends over the holiday it will be much more restricted than normal.
It would be very easy to just focus on all of the aspects of Christmas that you are missing or that have changed beyond all recognition. What that would most likely do to you is steal any chance of joy with the Christmas you can have. That would feel like a double-whammy. So, when you feel yourself ruminating on how different everything is I want you to interrupt your thoughts as quickly as possible before you have time to spiral deeper into feeling more negativity.
I’ll teach you a really easy way to do this. When you notice yourself struggling as you think about all the negative changes the pandemic has brought about I want you to make a gameshow noise – like an ‘Uh-Uh’ buzzer – for a wrong answer. It might sound silly but this is a recognised technique used by psychologists to help their clients interrupt all kinds of negative thinking. You are going to use that ‘Uh-Uh’ sound to interrupt your negative thinking. If you prefer you can make the buzzer sound silently in your mind or out loud. It might be fun to share this technique with those in your household or when you’re chatting to friends. The ’Uh-Uh’ buzzer strategy could become your ‘thing’ so that whenever you or anyone close to you spirals into negativity either you or they make the ‘Uh-Uh’ buzzer sound.
With that buzzer sound, soon your Christmas won’t feel like half the struggle you thought it was going to be.
2. “I’m a bit of a control freak, and I’m worried about spending the holidays with my boyfriend’s family for the first time. I usually handle planning – I hate handing over the reins to someone else and I’m worried I’m not going to enjoy it…”
Sally: Part of becoming a committed couple is the ability to be flexible and learning to compromise. Just as going to your boyfriend’s for Christmas is a big deal for you I’m sure it will feel special for them having their son’s girlfriend sharing the holiday with them.
Christmas is such an emotionally loaded time. It’s not really about the differences in the things people do but the feelings between people that are the most important. I recognise that it will be hard for you as you’re used to being in control. Often people who like to be in control are masking their anxiety so you have a couple of options to help get you through your first Christmas as a guest of your boyfriend’s family.
Option one: Say to yourself that you are resigning from being responsible for Christmas this time. Somehow or other you’ve ended up with the job of holding the Christmas reins and if the truth be told its exhausting and in some families, it can even be a thankless task. So, tell yourself this year you are resigning from the job of being responsible for Christmas and appointing yourself the role of a grateful guest instead.
If that is too big an ask for you then plum for Option two: Contact by email or text (so they have time to process) whoever is chief Christmas wrangler in your boyfriend’s family and offer to be responsible for one aspect of the celebrations. You could suggest making the pre-lunch cocktails: ask to decorate the Christmas dining table; make the starters or the dessert on Christmas day. Alternatively, say you’d love to give them a break on Boxing Day and take over those festivities. By asking them well in advance they can seriously consider your request and not just put you off.
If you aren’t invited to contribute as you’d hoped then you can make yourself the real Christmas hero by taking control of the post feasting clearing up!
3. “I’m feeling really flat about the holidays and just feel that there’s no point. I have had so many wonderful Christmases in past years. If this is going to be any less than perfect, why bother?”
Sally: It’s lovely that you’ve created wonderful Christmases in the past years and this year will undoubtedly feel different and more challenging. That’s the pragmatic truth for so many of us trying our best to celebrate the festive season during a pandemic.
Trying to achieve the perfect Christmas is going to be even more of a conundrum this year than any other year. For many people trying to create a Christmas any less than perfect can leave them feeling flat or anxious. Every year the ante of what a perfect Christmas seems harder to achieve. Social media has made the tyranny of ‘The Perfect Christmas’ even more elusive to attain in real life. Posting a ‘Perfect Christmas’ photograph is a popular hashtag with tens of thousands of followers. What people forget though is that a photograph only takes 125th of a second and tells us nothing about what people are feeling or the authentic relationships of those in the photograph.
Hopefully, our pandemic Christmas will be a one-off and in future years Christmas will return to the Christmases we know and love. One thing for sure is that for decades to come people will talk about the Christmas of 2020. It can’t help but be special because the circumstances are unique and unprecedented. With this in mind, I urge you to find something positive to focus on every day in both the run-up to the holiday and Christmas itself.
Set yourself the challenge to find something, however small, that you are grateful for or that you take pleasure in to lift your mood. You can write down the positives you find for yourself in a notebook as part of a gratitude journal. Acknowledging gratitude for what we have or how we feel is a powerful therapeutic technique to improve mood and to shift focus from lack to abundance. The positives you find and acknowledge in your gratitude journal will help you to create your Christmas memories of this special Christmas holiday.
4. “My family ALWAYS argue during Christmas. I can’t see how this year will be any different. You always see lovely family Christmases and it makes me so annoyed that my family isn’t perfect like that. Should I say something?”
Sally: As a therapist, I always see red flags of alarm when a family are ultra-polite with each other and never argue or have a cross word to say between themselves. I see this sometimes in families that have learnt it’s not safe to disagree or share their opinions. They have learnt they need to be compliant and non-confrontational which often covers a multitude of painful truths in their relationships with each other.
The family dynamic is special and isn’t replicated with any other relationships out in the wider world. People who are the height of politeness with friends and colleagues can take all sorts of risks in how they talk to a family member and as long as that’s not disrespectful or abusive in many ways that is what a healthy family dynamic looks and feels like.
Some families argue passionately about politics or football and they enjoy the cut and parry of their verbal jousting. Other families may argue about the similar things but these are proxy arguments where football or the weather or whatever are argued about instead of them arguing about their real grievances.
It would be helpful if you try not to get sucked into the next disagreement and simply observe your family when they are arguing. It sounds as though just like previous years you’ll have plenty of opportunities to watch the dynamic unfold.
Ask yourself does it feel like there is genuine affection between them when they argue or do they cut each other to the quick and inflict real pain? Being a detective in your own family you might find their arguing is a measure of their energy and interest in each other and something to celebrate rather than be annoyed about. Having the mutual energy to disagree is a healthier family dynamic than apathy, disinterest or an unwillingness to engage.