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December 20, 2014
by Brenda Snyder, LCSW

A Holiday Survival Guide

December 20, 2014 05:55 by Brenda Snyder, LCSW

Sometimes the very times that are SUPPOSED to make us the happiest evoke exactly the opposite.  Anxiety and negative anticipation can virtually ruin your experience before it even gets here. As the leaves burn into their bright reds and golds, the taste of Fall’s fresh apple cider often turns to bitter vinegar in the stomachs of those who turn the calendar page and realize that the dreaded holiday season is soon upon us. 

If this sounds all too familiar, you might benefit from exploring how your expectation of holidays present or your interpretation of holidays past impacts your negative experience.

The Norman Rockwell Complex

Many carry into the season some idyllic vision of a perfect family holiday, some holy grail of tradition and fantastical Norman Rockwell perfection. Even when they realize they’re applying unrealistic pressure to create the perfect decorations, meal, or gift-giving experience, they still feel powerless to stop the frenetic activity.  Invariably, these folks end up disappointed in themselves or those around them when the holiday doesn’t meet their artificial, and possibly even unnamed, standard.  They might not even know why they feel so let down after all their efforts are expended, possibly because they’ve never explored exactly what they were trying to achieve in the first place.

This pressure can be evident at any stage of life, but probably seems especially prevalent in newly formed couples and in families who have children at home, but also have parents and extended family with whom traditions and expectations exist.

When two people marry, they each bring a set of family blueprints with them that lays the foundation for their individual vision of a life together. The smart ones realize that these designs look different, and that one of the tasks of couple-dom is to merge the two prints into one life. The naïve among us don’t know that what feels familiar to one, might be completely alien to another.

Even in families of the traditional, white-picket-fence variety, the number of people to satisfy exponentially increases when a person enters couplehood.  At least one more set of parents, grandparents, and extended family comes with marriage, and if a spouse’s family is complicated by divorce or in any other way, there are even more people/responsibilities/events to attend.

In the seemingly more common, NON-traditional family, stepchildren, exes, current and former in-laws, parents, and court documents can add even more strain to sorting out how you spend your holiday.

Ghosts of Christmases past often haunt people during the holiday season.  Perhaps yours was not the picturesque family of Hallmark movies, and your holidays were fraught with tension about how much Uncle George had to drink before he put on his Santa suit.  Maybe Mom and Dad always fought over how the Christmas tree was trimmed. Maybe you had divorced parents and so experienced the reality of trying to please everybody when nobody seemed to know how to be happy.

As with so many of our sources of anxiety, insight into how we are interpreting events around us can be really helpful. 

Here are some other tips to remember:

  • Do the reality check.  Make a list of every single thing you plan to accomplish for the holidays.  Include decorating, shopping, gift wrapping, meal planning/preparation/execution, holiday events/concerts you attend, holiday parties whether you host or are hosted, and anything else you can think of. Cross off things you HATE doing, but only do to please ungrateful others. Then compare your list to the amount of time you have.  If there is a mismatch, prioritize the items on the list. Going to your 3rd grader’s Christmas concert is probably more important than creating the perfect wreath to adorn the fireplace. As you rank items on your list, consider what you’re using to assign importance. (This helps you with the insight related to your interpretation, which is mentioned above.)

  • Let go of your unrealistic expectations. I used to spend all day cooking an enormous turkey dinner, which fit with my vision of the perfect Christmas. Sweating alone in the kitchen all day, my overtired and ever-lovely teenagers would then grumble that they didn’t LIKE (my mother’s famous recipe) sweet potatoes, and I would end up frustrated, disappointed and resentful.  Several years ago, we changed our Christmas Day tradition to hanging out in our pajamas all day, then going to a movie and having dinner at a Chinese buffet (not much else is open). This non-traditional tradition is now unique to us and one that we all embrace.

  • Avoid competition.  A surprising too many of us find ourselves in competition for the “perfect” holiday. You might be competing with a Folgers commercial, an ex-spouse, a crabby mother-in-law, or the girls at work. Figure this out and divest yourself of the notion that there is a blue ribbon doled out on December 26. Do what feels right, include family in planning your time together, and enjoy!

  • Traditions happen when you’re not looking. It’s fine to planfully create new family traditions, but pay attention to what the kids recognize from year to year and look forward to. What started out as the chore of baking all the Christmas cookies and desserts at my mom’s house a couple weeks prior to the holiday has turned into a day that my adult stepchildren arrange their days off around so they can participate.  Watch for questions like “Are 

  • you going to make those awesome rolls for breakfast again?” or “Remember last year when Dad carried us all through the house looking for the New Year’s baby at midnight?” for hints about what is important to the kids.  Your family’s holiday can evolve as something unique if you let it.

  • Let go of the date. It doesn’t negate the meaning or fun to do something on December 19 instead of December 25. The family time you spend together is memorable regardless of what the calendar says. Being flexible on the date will also enable you to honor old family traditions in addition to the new ones you are creating, instead of having to choose what to leave out because of time constraints.  Modifying the day you spend with your extended family, for example, is much better than giving it up, and will lead to less bitterness and resentment.

  • A Charlie Brown Christmas. Figure out what the holiday season means to you and focus on that. Begun in Christian tradition, Christmas can be a time of spiritual renewal, which does not require the hectic pace prescribed by our culture. For some, the holiday season is a time to appreciate family and reconnect with people you don’t see all year long. Others appreciate recipes put away during other times of the year.  When the pressured expectations are getting to you, take a moment to appreciate what constitutes the true meaning according to your beliefs.

  • Don’t “should” on yourself.  (Speak this directive aloud for maximum appreciation.)  Enjoy what is, versus what you (or anybody else) thinks ought to be.  Do what you can.  Live it in the moment, without distracting yourself with judgment or resentment.  Love.  Accept.  Be happy.


Employing survival techniques in the holiday season is counter-cultural and can take practice, but it can be done.  If uncomfortable feelings or difficult-to-manage anxiety or depression predominate your experience, you might benefit from working with a licensed therapist to explore your interpretations of past and current events, and to learn better coping skills and boundaries.

It is often true that by living in the moment and concentrating on all that is right in your life, you can avoid focusing on ideas—your own or anyone else’s—of what is missing, and appreciate everything that is truly present.

About the Author

Brenda Snyder Brenda Snyder, LCSW

Imagine what it would feel like to be free of emotional pain. You deserve to better understand your situation and your emotion so that you can figure out your options, make good decisions, and feel better. For 15+ years, I have helped people like you, do just that.

Brenda Snyder can be found at
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