Christmas – a time of expectations

As Christmas approaches it can be a good time to reflect on what expectations you might be holding about the season. Expectations can add an extra layer of pressure and stress at this time, something most of us could do without. Most of the time we can be unaware of the expectations we hold, including that Christmas has to be good or fabulous.

Quite a while ago I was given a gift by someone I worked with, it was in the response she gave to the simple question I asked. I had asked if she had had a good Christmas, her response was interesting.  She replied that she found some Christmas’s to be challenging and some to be good and she was grateful that this was a good year.

The gift for me in that comment was permission to allow my Christmas to be what it was, and it took away a lot of the self-judgement I had, as that year I had had a very challenging Christmas for lots of reasons. It gave me the opportunity to think about Christmas and my expectations and judgements and to have a much more balanced attitude towards the holidays. I was able to think about the reality of Christmas, rather than the fantasy filled with so many expectations.

With all of the advertising and films and endless songs it can feel like Christmas has to be a particular way, that it really does have to be “The Most wonderful time of the year”. Yet for many of us the reality is that it can be anything but wonderful. Most often I find that, like life, it is mixed. One way we can care for ourselves at this time is to manage our expectations. As the saying goes, expectations minus reality equals disappointment, so I offer a few thoughts about how it could be different for you to consider.

What are your expectations and are they realistic?

We can have expectations both of ourselves, others and even the weather at this time of year. One common one is the expectation everyone has the perfect Christmas, without even wondering if that is true or considering what a perfect Christmas would actually look like for us. There is an expectation to join in, to go out, to have fun, to have a beautiful tree and wonderful food and lots of friends. A family that is loving and welcoming with no conflict and everyone feeling happy and loving every minute. You may have financial expectations placed on you about gifting or going out and be left feeling you have no choice at a time when a lot of us are struggling with balancing our income.

Then there are the expectations we have of other people, that they should like the same Christmas as us. Maybe they should buy us the perfect present, or that they should notice how much effort we have put into something. We often expect people to notice or maybe even read our minds when we want help with something and end up doing everything and feeling resentful. So many expectations. I love this quote I found about expectations:

Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely they were to crack”

Branden Sanderson

The reality is that it is often us that crack. The statistics for divorce or mental health crisis around Christmas speak for themselves. It is a time when relationships can be strained as we build up stress and often burn the candle at both ends rushing to get everything done.

What would it be like to take a few minutes and just reflect on what expectations you have about Christmas this year and are they realistic? Bringing awareness to the idea that you have expectations can begin the process of lowering the pressure and allows you to make a positive choice about what you want to do. You may sense there is nothing you can do and that can be a moment to offer yourself some kindness and compassion, especially if the situation is challenging.

Ways to manage your expectations

First things first, be honest about the reality of Christmas for you and what you are comfortable saying and doing. There are so many different expectations from so many different sources. Maybe just start with the one that is bringing the most stress for you and you feel most confident in changing.  

If you know that your family dynamics are difficult to navigate, think about ways you can look after yourself in that situation. Maybe have a way of taking time out or limit the amount of time you agree to be with people. Do you have to stay with them, is there an alternative? Time out can be as simple as going for a walk or taking yourself off to read a book. What matters is that it is something you feel comfortable and able to do. Be realistic about how long you want to stay with people. Would a shorter visit or a meet up for a meal be easier?

If people are coming to stay with you, think about what you can and can’t offer as a host. If you are aware that certain people wind you up, maybe think in advance of how you could avoid getting drawn into it. At the same time let yourself off the hook if you do find yourself repeating patterns that aren’t helpful. For me it is a bit like going outside. If you always hope that the weather is going to be fine then you don’t prepare for when it is raining or cold. Being honest with yourself gives you the opportunity to look after yourself and your needs. If you notice yourself getting agitated then use one of your pre planned ways of coping, even if it is just to say I think I need a few minutes.

When planning what to do over Christmas consider how much time and energy it all takes and make sure to include some down time. Down time is different for everyone. A long walk in nature works for me, what might work for you?

Keeping it simple is often a helpful outlook as well, does your meal have to have all ten courses with a perfectly laid table just like it is on social media. Know yourself as well. If you are someone who is very organised and likes to have everything just so, then that is what you need. On the other hand, you might be a bit more spontaneous and really not like everything planned so roll with that.

It can be useful to ask yourself some questions that may help you uncover your expectations. You could think about the following:

  • What do I enjoy most at Christmas?
  • What do I dread or find the most stressful at Christmas?
  • What positive changes can I make?
  • What do I think Christmas should be like and has it ever been?
  • What matters most to me at Christmas?

You may want to think about one or two of those questions or you may find reading this has sparked different questions. Reflecting and taking time to pause is a way we can start to feel more in control and to see that we do have choices, even if it is the choice to say this is how it is and for now I am not ready to do anything differently.

Moments of Joy

I wanted to close with something that can get overlooked in all the articles about coping with Christmas. It is about noticing and being able to savour moments of joy, at least that is what I call them. I find it is usually not the big dramatic moments that bring joy, it can be the small unexpected ones. At this time of year all the lights both in the shops and outside people’s homes bring me such joy. I do like decorating the tree, although I have lowered my expectations about how it looks, which has lowered the stress levels in my house.  I would like to invite you to take a moment to notice what brings you joy at this time; these small moments can help calm and soothe us when we are stressed and anxious. Whatever your Christmas is like this year I wish you well and hope you find your own moments of joy.

Brigid Errington

Brigid Errington

Brigid Errington is an experienced BACP accredited counsellor providing online and in person therapy to adults and young people over the age of 13. She is currently working at Holt Consulting Rooms