We all wish our winter holidays to be a time for celebrating, happiness, thankfulness, and togetherness. By October, we’ve started to form expectations – fantasies about gifts, family, and friends. But often those aren’t met. We’ll feel resentful, hurt, and disappointed. Here are a few stories of holiday daze and how we can understand holiday stress.

Fall Gourds

Holiday Stress: Family Dynamics

“There’s so much guilt when I visit my mom at Thanksgiving. I think about how little time I spend with her but then I can’t stand how negative she is. I want to change her but I can’t, so I go on long walks or take naps to escape. I love her, but it’s hard to like her. It makes me so sad. I’ve thought about having a tee-shirt that says: I survived Thanksgiving 2013 at my mother’s.”

Returning home to the house or city one grew up in can also produce a mass of feelings, especially if you associate that place with conflict, criticism, or chaos. These visits may also induce self-defeating behaviors as the pressures of being home with the family are soothed by too much food and drink. Home cooking may be just the stimulus needed to turn a perfect dieter into a neurotic binger.

Recognize that taking care of yourself is important. Identify boundaries, limits, and specific activities that can act like a release valve if you get too overwhelmed or stressed. Going on a walk or taking a nap may have made my friend in the story above feel guilty, but it also allowed her to not completely deplete all her energy when interacting with her mother.

Holiday Evergreen

Holiday Stress: Appearance & Approval

“If I go home and my parents don’t tell me how great I look, I’m devastated. I feel I must look my best for them, have a brilliant job, and be in a responsible relationship. Only then I’m comfortable.”

“It never fails that I have great expectations about how wonderful holidays will be. I picture all of us together, one big happy family. Yet, when the time comes I forget how everyone picks on me for not being married. Then Uncle Jack gets drunk and insults someone. I stay depressed for the whole month of January.”

Most of us grow up wanting and our family’s approval and wanting to meet their expectations. As an adult, these needs are still in existence. We want a family that is harmonious; just like the families in all those Christmas specials. Anxiety, sadness, and anger are common emotions for individuals who feel they have failed to live up to other’s expectations. Changes in relationships, employment, weight, or educational choices are just a few sensitive issues that can bring real and imagined disapproval from family.

But life is a process, not an event. It’s unrealistic to think that at a given point, any of us will “have it all together.” The holiday season is often seen as a time of reflection. Identifying our shortcomings and creating new goals is helpful. But we often forget to also identify our successes. Remind yourself, and critical family members, of the joys in your life – the things you are proud to have done or been a part of.

Gift Wrap

Holiday Stress: Gift Giving

“Every Christmas I go home hoping it will be a happy celebration. I worked so hard at buying everyone the right present and I always spend too much. So when someone doesn’t act ecstatic over the gift, I feel let down and embarrassed when they’re much happier over a less expensive, simpler gift.”

Emotions are so intrinsic, so internal and automatic that it’s destructive to pretend they don’t exist. It’s best to recognize and admit how the holidays make you feel and prepare yourself for next year by adjusting your expectations.

Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by depending on others for your joy. Learn tools to make yourself happy despite the outcome of an exchange or singular event.

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