What Matters Most at the Holidays?
Breaking your rules about how things “have to be done” for the holidays is the best gift you can give yourself and the people you love.
I am the adult daughter of a perfectionist. My mom was an incredible woman who earnestly tried to meet all of the competing and conflicting expectations of working moms in the 70’s and 80’s. In fact, like many women, her identity and sense of worth was connected to being able to keep the house spotless; make sure her parents, husband, and children had everything they needed; and be a consistently high performer at her (other) full time job. Cheered on by media and advertising telling her she could “bring home the bacon, fry it up in pan, and never ever let you forget you’re a man” she was a firm believer she could and should do it all. She wore her exhaustion like a status symbol, proof that she loved her people and was a good daughter, mother, and wife.
The trouble was that her exhaustion had a significant impact on her physical and emotional health. A consistent lack of self-care left her physically drained and mentally tired. It also caused her to be emotionally brittle, often feeling empty, frustrated, resentful, hurt, wounded, and reactive. In this off-centered state she would “go off” and yell about seemingly insignificant things. She would unintentionally damage her relationships and ended up being seen as unsafe, sometimes scary, and difficult to be around. This destructive, culturally induced pattern was never more apparent than it was at the holidays.
Every year, around Halloween, my mom would start gearing up for the holidays. She would implement her grand plan to create a Norman Rockwell, Currier and Ives quality holiday. She would go out of her way to find the perfect gifts for each member of the family, and make sure she got them for the lowest price in town even if that meant she bought and returned the gift several times. While we were cleaning up the kitchen from our “pull out all the stops” Thanksgiving Dinner she would kick into high gear to produce the perfect Christmas celebration.
House deep cleaned (check); house decorated (check); outside lights up (check); gifts purchased (check); gifts wrapped (check); 15 kinds of cookies made (check); trays delivered to the neighbors (check); Christmas cards in the mail on-time (check). She really would make a list and check it twice to be sure everything turned out shiny and nice. She never took any time off work so she could save her vacation for the summer time. As time passed and the number of nights without adequate rest accumulated she would get more exhausted, more frustrated, more demanding and intense. Family members would sense the coming storm and start to make themselves scarce in order to avoid her increasingly negative energy. Often by Christmas Eve she’d be sitting on the sofa in tears, confused and wondering why she was working so hard if no one even appreciated it, or her. Year after year I would try to comfort her, but I just did not know how to help her see that all I really wanted for Christmas was for us to be together and to have good connection with each other.
It is so easy to get caught up in the frenzy of the holidays, to get attached to the allure of perfection, and lose ourselves in the process. This year, take some time to reflect on what matters most. Have conversations with your people about the kind of feeling you all want to create. Can you create a nice holiday without exhausting yourself and getting your ego and your self-worth attached to the details…or the outcome? What can you let go of in order to get some rest and take care of yourself? Are there “holiday rules” that you follow every year that no longer make sense in the grand scheme of things? Can you skip using the china? Do you have to go to every holiday gathering you are invited to? Are you trying to please everyone at the expense of your emotional health? What is so important that it needs to stay part of the tradition? What can you let go of?
What Matters Most when you are having a “transitional holiday”...
Being reflective about the holidays is especially important if you or your family have lost a significant member recently. Often people try to make the first holiday after a major loss feel like all the other holidays. This is a set up for failure and sure fire way to catch the holiday blues. If you and your family are experiencing a “transitional holiday” because of a significant loss, a recent move, a major health challenge, or job loss it is helpful to make this holiday unique from all the others. Ask yourselves: Given that this is what we are experiencing, how can we create meaning and connection together this year? What can we make up that would honor the person we lost or allow us to celebrate what matters most?
One of my favorite examples of a new tradition that grew out of honoring someone who died is my sister’s annual tradition of working on the Donate Life float that is part of the Rose Bowl parade. We lost my mom in 2002 due to complications from her lung transplant and working on the float is a way my sister and my niece not only pay tribute to my mom and her organ donor, but also work to promote giving the gift of life.
As you think about this holiday season we hope you will relax, reflect, and resolve to take care of yourself, to honor the things that make your heart sing, and to be mindful of what matters most.