Forget About Perfect
The holidays are here, in all their sparkling glory. And holidays mean family -- an extra-large dose of the people you see every day, plus more time than normal with grandma, weird Uncle Ernie, your in-laws, and various other hangers-on, any and all of whom you may or may not like. Even if you are lucky enough to adore every single person you encounter at Thanksgiving and Christmas (or Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, or whatever else it is that you celebrate), not to mention New Year's, the season is still rife with emotional challenges. Plus, you've got that pesky cultural expectation of peace, love, joy and harmony to deal with. Can you live up to that? Can your loved ones?
If you're a relatively normal human being, you probably can't.
The good news is that if/when you experience that familiar "I want to run away" sensation, there are plenty of healthy ways to cope. And no, I'm not talking about guzzling spiked eggnog until you pass out. Instead, I'm talking about the "pull out at least once a year" relationship-related concepts of acceptance, gratitude, restraint, self-care, and putting the focus on others (empathy).
People are who they are, warts and all. If you simply accept your mother-in-law exactly as she is, even though she criticizes your every move, you'll be a lot happier. Maybe your holiday gift to her (or whoever it is that grates on you) is to embrace her imperfections, understanding that they're what make her unique.
My esteemed colleague Brenￃﾩ Brown has studied human happiness for about 20 years, interviewing thousands of individuals in the course of her research. And her findings boil down to one simple statement: "Happy people are grateful for what they have." So if you find yourself struggling for any reason during the holidays, try writing down 10 things you're grateful for. And if you've got kids who are getting a little greedy, take them to the nearest mall and ask them to pick out one toy -- a toy they would want for themselves -- to give to a kid in need. Let them pick the item out, let them pay for it, and let them donate it to a local charity drive. If that doesn't change their attitude, nothing will.
Okay, your sister serves cranberry sauce from a can instead of making it from scratch, and your brother always has one glass of wine too many, and your kids have played that song about Grandma getting run over by a reindeer at least a hundred times today, and for some unknown reason your husband thought that giving you a vacuum cleaner would make your holidays complete. Any other time of year you could get away with a snide remark or at least an eye-roll. But not now. No matter how annoyed or disgusted you are, keep it to yourself. (In January you can throw out the CD your kids were playing and suggest to your husband that next year he might want to buy you a weekend spa getaway.)
Nothing exacerbates stress more than poor self-care. Yes, you are likely to be inundated with sweets and liquor during the holidays, but try to practice moderation -- and don't beat yourself up when you have a few more cookies than you should. Make sure you maintain your regular sleep patterns as best you can, and that you get to the gym on your regular schedule. If you're married, you might also want to schedule a "date night" with your spouse, during which you can escape the holiday hubbub and refocus on your relationship (and maybe even your sex life).
Putting the Focus on Others (Empathy)
Remember, the holidays are about spending quality time with loved ones. This means that you love them (even when you don't like what they say or how they act) and that their happiness is important to you. So when your parents buy your children way too much stuff even though you asked them not to, instead of being angry, you might want to just sit back and watch the joy on your parents' and your kids' faces as the young ones gleefully unwrap package after package. In fact, no matter how grouchy you are with other adults at your holiday celebration, watching the kids have fun will almost certainly break you out of it.
Special Note: Create Some Breathing Room
If you're visiting relatives, think about renting a hotel room rather than staying at their house. Yes, I know this can be expensive. But what is more important: your wallet, or your sanity and being able to enjoy the holidays? This not only relieves stress on you (by giving you an escape when you've had enough), it lightens the burden on your relatives, giving them a break from hosting, which takes A LOT of work and planning.
Another way to give yourself a bit of space -- this time emotionally rather than physically - is to postpone any discussions with serious emotional weight. For example, if money is tight this year, set a budget with your spouse and then stick to it without discussing it again (unless circumstances change). If need be, you can share this information in an age-appropriate way with your kids. If you do, you might find that instead of griping about not getting enough holiday swag, they'll support your efforts. They might even help you find some low-cost holiday fun for the entire family (free concerts, creating handmade decorations and gifts, baking rather than buying, etc.).
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. He is author of numerous books, including Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.