By Ann Brand
Some holiday seasons we make the trek down to Florida to visit my in-laws. What could be better? Sunny Florida in December, twinkle lights on palm trees, and a break from the cold and cloudy days of midwest winter! Yet as we anticipate spending time with loved ones at these joyous times, sometimes I’ve notice a creeping sense of dread mixed with the excitement. Remember what happened last year? What if they bring up _______ again? This feeling can sometimes hang over our holiday preparations and dampen the season of cheer.
Family gatherings are rarely Hallmark Card perfect, yet that is what we expect. We are bombarded with messages, both internal and external, about how our holiday times with family “should” look. We see warm, smiling families gathering in television commercials and we painstakingly deliberate over choosing the perfect photo to put on our holiday card. When things don’t measure up to our expectations, we react in ways that don’t always fit the holiday spirit. It could be snapping at our kids for not picking up their new toys before the guests arrive, or quietly seething because once again your brother is not helping AT ALL with the holiday feast, or maybe you eat and drink a little more than planned in order to help cope with challenging relatives. Our reactivity can quickly snowball into family squabbles and hurt feelings, further dampening our holiday spirit.
When we strive to live up to unrealistic expectations around the holidays, we are setting ourselves and our loved ones up for suffering. We get lost in the story of how things are supposed to be and frustration and disappointment take over. We are human beings, who have emotions and make mistakes. As families, we have long histories of habits and patterns of relating to each other, and these do not get placed on hold just because we are supposed to be happy and joyfully celebrating. Allowing space for imperfection creates opportunities for the clarity and connections we long for at the holidays.
Mindfulness is about allowing ourselves to come in contact with the full range of our experience—thoughts, emotions, and sensations—whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. In allowing ourselves to take the time to acknowledge and honor the experience we are having, we have the space to relate to what we are feeling in a skillful, gentle way that offers kindness to ourselves. Pausing to be aware of our expectations, checking in with our emotions as they arise, and allowing our experience to be just as it is all support us in seeing things as they are, not as we think they “should” be. Then we can choose how we relate to what is happening in more skillful ways—we can see the small joys and allow ourselves and our loved ones to be the human beings we all are. This makes way for the connections we hope for at the holidays, even when things are difficult or painful.
Life is not Hallmark Card perfect, but it is full of ordinary joys, now and at the holidays. Mindfulness supports us in lovingly embracing the joyful mess of the holidays, just as it is.
Ann Brand, Ph.D. is a college instructor and mindfulness teacher based in Eau Claire, WI. To find out more, visit www.annbrandmindfulness.com
When we notice ourselves feeling overwhelmed with the stresses and demands of the holiday season, we can pause and take just three deep breaths to help us come back to the present moment, experience some calm, and connect with the joy of the season.