In my therapy practice, one of my favorite sayings is, “expectations are usually just resentments waiting to happen.” As a psychotherapist, I try to help my clients recognize that it’s important to have reasonable expectations and to ask for what you want rather than expecting perfection.
This year, I learned (again) that sometimes, therapists need to listen to their own advice.
Holidays are the perfect time of year to get caught up in expectations, and this year, I was no different.
Our oldest son is seven and we have four year-old twins. This year, I was looking forward to a holiday season filled with fun family events. Finally, we’ve reached a time when we don’t have to baby-proof the Christmas tree and keep all presents out of sight to prevent sticky toddler fingers from opening presents in the middle of the night.
I had high hopes of taking my dance-loving daughter to the Nutcracker, decorating holiday cookies as a family, visiting Santa, and continuously hiding that Elf on the shelves.
Unfortunately, the month of December ended up looking a little different than I had hoped.
My disappointment started one afternoon in early December when my son’s school called to let me know he had a fever. Upon visiting the doctor, we learned he had croup and thus, we were off on a one-way ticket to the family illness circus. Croup led to double ear infections, then a stomach bug, strep throat, and finally, the coup de grace, lice. There, I said it, lice. Now, this was not all one child—all five of us came down with some variation of winter illness during the month.
So instead of all of the fun holiday activities I had planned, we were up to our eyeballs in Omnicef, Amoxycilin, and every lice shampoo, gel, mouse, spray, and fine-tooth comb we could find. I washed every single piece of clothing, towel, bedding, well, basically anything that wasn’t nailed down or couldn’t be Cloroxed.
Once everyone seemed to be on the mend, I decided we’d spend a Sunday making Christmas cookies. I went to the pantry to get out the sanding sugar when I discovered mouse droppings throughout the pantry. Out came the Clorox once again.
One caveat I should mention—we weren’t total grinches this year. We did manage to put up and decorate a tree, each kid had an advent calendar, and we listened to plenty of holiday music. We sent out holiday cards and actually had a nice season. I think I was the only one that noticed that things weren’t “perfect”.
So what did I learn this year?
- Manage expectations. It’s okay to have plans and hopes as the holidays are a season of wonder. Traditions and rituals are important–they give us something to look forward to. The problem comes when we start expecting things to be perfect. That leads to the second point.
- Perfection is unreasonable. It’s not only unreasonable, it’s impossible. Every time we expect perfection, we come up short. And when we come up short, this leads us to feel like we’ve failed. That sense of failure leads to a feeling of shame—that something is wrong with me. Shame is an unhealthy feeling that doesn’t get us anywhere.
- Limit exposure to Facebook and other methods of comparison. When we compare ourselves to others, it’s another way to feel like we’re coming up short. Whenever I go on Facebook, I see the happy, seemingly-perfect pictures of other families with no lice and no mice. If I go on Facebook 10 times a day, that’s likely 10 times I’m seeing those pictures and feeling like something is wrong with me if my Facebook wall doesn’t have the same pictures.
- Enjoy the moment. Throughout the month that was our December debacle, there were several moments of pure joy and love, like the afternoon my daughter and I snuggled and watched holiday movies, and the morning when my son and I built Batman Lego sets.
- Say no. This is a lesson I’m constantly relearning. Like many of us, I struggle with trying to please others. I always want to make others happy and it’s hard to say no. But it’s important to prioritize and to conserve your resources so you don’t get spread too thin, especially during the holidays.
- Remember the reason for the season. I know, this is cheesy. But it’s really true. The holidays aren’t about doing holiday things or making perfect memories. The holidays are about spending time with your loved ones and enjoying time together.
The holiday season can be difficult for other reasons too. When we’ve lost a loved one and are grieving, holidays can be excruciating. Often we feel like we “should” be happy and joyful when in reality, we feel sad and lonely.
And then add Seasonal Affective Disorder to the mix, when many of us leave for work and then head home again in the dark. The holidays can really be a recipe for feeling as if something’s missing.
To survive this season in tact, I encourage everyone to set healthy boundaries, put your needs first, acknowledge your feelings, forget the “shoulds”, limit exposure to Facebook, and remember, December is just another month in the year.
It can also be helpful to talk with a therapist about these feelings and to learn more about how to cope with this season. If you’d like to learn more, call me at 402-595-8368.