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it’s the holidays – now what?

I’m a 30-something year old woman, without children. I’ve chosen to live away from family and have spent many years juggling family and personal expectations during the holidays. Over time, I’ve learned that expectations are complex and the key to a peaceful season is to practice patience and compassion – with others and myself.

accepting our unmet expectations

We all have expectations. Sometimes we feel the weight of someone else’s expectations; other times, we’re the ones placing the pressure on others and ourselves. When I’m the one with expectations - and reality doesn’t meet them - I feel disappointed or angry. Perhaps I’m expecting Christmas Eve dinner to go smoothly or that my family makes it one year without a major argument. Question is what do we do when reality falls short of our expectations? There are a few things I’ve found to be helpful during these times.

  1. Take a minute and say to myself exactly what’s happened. For example, “I really hoped my sister and mom would get along for the holiday but here they are bickering once again.”

  2. Ask myself what I’m feeling. “I’m feeling frustrated because I’d hoped this Christmas would be different than last years.”

  3. Accept my expectations. “I really wanted today to go differently. I’m sad things didn’t go how I expected.”

  4. Offer myself an alternative. “It might take some time for my family to change their traditions around Christmas, even if that tradition is arguing. How I participate might inspire some different traditions.

These four steps allow me to be more present with my feelings and to offer myself compassion.

Over time, I’ve also learned that expectations deserve thought and reflection, which usually results in more realistic expectations. Sure, I might have some pretty high hopes for this holiday season, but when I pause in advance and ask myself “what’s a realistic expectation for the holiday?” I can set a bar within reach and honor myself in the process.

The take away: expectations are part of human nature. They’re okay when set realistically. Just as important, expectations will inevitably be unmet and that’s okay too. The invitation is to practice patience and compassion with all parties involved.

acknowledging others' expectations of us

Another complex challenge during the holidays is managing our responses to others’ expectations of us. As I mentioned, I live away from family and they expect me to come home for Christmas. I recognize I’m beyond fortunate to have a large family to go home to for the holidays - I do not take that for granted. But, alas, back to expectations. I want to make everyone happy, and going home seems to be an easy way of achieving that. What I’ve learned repeatedly is that satisfying my family, friends, and co-workers does not equate to satisfying me.

For many of us, sacrificing our wants and ignoring our own feelings for the sake of others has become second nature. At what point do we step back and decide what’s best for ourselves? Maybe going home for the holidays isn’t what I want. Maybe spending time with friends feels more relaxing. Or, maybe the holidays are my only real time off throughout the entire year and I’d like to decompress and recharge for the New Year.

learning how to take care of myself

The first year I decided not to go home for Christmas my family was quite upset. It was painful. I really struggled to deal with that reality. Over time, I’ve managed to come up with some steps to help me get through moments like these.

  • Acknowledge my choice and their expectations. “I’ve decided to stay in Portland this year instead of coming home; I know you all hoped I’d come home.”

  • We often feel the need to justify our choices, but I try to hear them out without getting defensive! “It sounds like everyone is pretty bummed I’m not coming home this year. I’d be upset, too, if I were in your position.”

  • Accept the reality as it stands. “I know you all hoped I’d come home for Christmas and this is one of the years I’m choosing to stay in Portland.”

  • Offer an alternative narrative. “It might seem like I’m choosing my friends over family; the truth is spending Christmas with family is really special to me and I’m grateful to have a family that wants to spend the holidays together.”

In using these practices, I’ve found that my family is able to accept and support my choices, even if they’re still upset. But, when I’m able to move beyond my own defensiveness I’m more available to listen to and acknowledge their feelings, while remaining confident in my choices.

It’s taken time to get to this place of understanding with my family but we’ve managed to grow together and with every year there are new expectations and new opportunities for dialogue.

hope for the holidays

Expectations around the holidays are complex and deeply rooted in our personal and collective histories. Everyone has their own connection to the holiday season. I still find myself grappling with expectations, but with these practices I’m quicker to step back and tune into my feelings. I’m more able to stay open to the feelings of others. Rather than remain stuck in frustration or disappointment, I aim to soften and express compassion. This holiday season, consider how expectations play a role in your experience and try being patient with yourself and with those around you.

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