In response to my last blog post, where I encouraged you to stay sane by setting healthy boundaries at the holidays and asked for your dilemmas, a client wrote this:
My holiday challenge is this: I’ve had some recent health problems, and I’ve just learned I’ll need to schedule surgery for the week right before Christmas. Though it’s stressful enough to be dealing with this health concern, it’s not the surgery itself that’s making me anxious. The more difficult part, strangely, is how much anxiety I have about not being able to do all the “usual” Christmas things with my family. I’m dreading the week of Christmas and New Year’s, because I’ll be missing out on all my favorite holiday events – but even more than that, because I can already tell that my extended family feels let down that I can’t do the things I normally do with and for them each year. I usually host a fun Christmas Eve cocktail party, and I always take my nephews sledding, but this year I’ll be recovering in bed, not able to do much. How can I manage the next few weeks without feeling total disappointment?
Not Holly or Jolly
Dear Not Holly or Jolly,
I’m sorry to hear it’s going to be an unusual Christmas for you, and I want to start by sending my best wishes for a successful surgery and speedy recovery. Your health is paramount, and though the timing isn’t the best, let’s give thanks that you’ll be in the care of good doctors and nurses, though I know that doesn’t mitigate the disappointment you’re feeling about recovering instead of reveling in the next few weeks.
What I notice in your dilemma is that it isn’t actually the surgery – or even your own disappointment regarding your slow-down at the holidays – that’s causing you the most stress; it’s the disappointment you feel emanating from your family because you won’t be able to manage all the usual traditions and festivities. Though I can’t say most of my clients are dealing with surgery just now, per se, I can say that many of them are certainly dealing with managing expectations around traditions when it comes to their extended families. Maybe they’ve made the decision not to travel this year, or they’re re-evaluating how many events they want to put on the calendar because of a new baby in the house, or they’ve cut back on the amount they’re willing to spend on gifts. What you all have in common is that you’re trying to create holidays that are authentic and happy while balancing the desires of others. For you – and for them – some tips:
Whenever you hear the word “should” drive a decision, be cautious. It can be a messenger, reminding you to hit the pause button and think about the source of the directive before having a knee-jerk reaction. Just because you’ve let “shoulds” direct your behavior in the past, you don’t necessarily need to do so now. This year, if you hear your dad suggest you “should still host Christmas Eve” even though you’d be muddling through on painkillers and ibuprofen, pause and think about whether that input is realistic for you right now.
Consider multiple perspectives, including your own, in a logical and forthright way. I’m sure you’re heartbroken, for example, to have to miss taking your nephews sledding this year. It sounds like an annual tradition you and they enjoy. But try to eliminate exaggerated, all-or-nothing thinking (“The tradition is broken! Christmas is ruined!”) and instead try to give more weight to logic (“Missing one year won’t ruin anything.”).
Focus on the greater purpose and determine which option gets you closest to that. What’s the top priority here? Your health. So resolve to follow doctor’s orders and give yourself permission to feel disappointed this year, knowing that the trade-off (improved health) will pay off for future Christmasses. For others, the top priority may be sticking to a budget, building new traditions closer to home, or building in more solitude. Whatever it is, find a way to remind yourself of the bigger picture.
Take into account that what others expect of you is understandable from their point of view but is not dogma. Everyone is entitled to his or her own point of view, but your sister’s desires don’t trump yours any more than yours trump hers.
Practice ways to have a crucial conversation in which both sides of a conflict can tell the truth. If you’re afraid of disappointing the expectations you sense your mom has for you, it’s equally possible she’s feeling scared not to have the family together as usual. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth about how you feel and what you need from those closest to you.
Tough as it is to head into surgery at the holidays, perhaps it’s a chance to learn how to relinquish control. After all, you’ll be placing your confidence in the doctors and staff to keep you safe and healthy – what other choice do you have? In the same way, during your Christmastime recovery, as you bump up against all the things you can’t do this year, see if it might be a liberating experience to surrender control of your expectations and the expectations of those around you. Instead, just enjoy the present that unfolds and look for what surprises and delights you.