By Ashley Smith
Christmas trees piled high with presents, a rare Mississippi snow flurry, and warm mugs of cocoa in matching family pajamas. These are just a few of the dreams many of us have when gearing up for the holiday season. Unfortunately, these visions of sugarplums can quickly transform into lumps of coal by way of a family argument, burned turkey, or unexpected layoff. To keep the jolly in your holiday, check out these tips for managing expectations around the three most stressful aspects of the season – money, time and relationships.
When finances are tight (and even when they aren’t), having a spending plan before a single dollar is spent can be critical to avoiding a January of regret. Once your plan is set, begin thinking about how you can talk with friends and family about your plans for gift giving. Although it may seem difficult at first, these conversations can actually be very freeing for everyone involved. It may be that the cousin you were swapping gifts with would love to grab coffee one afternoon instead. With children, consider placing a limit on the number of presents you give. For example, some parents limit the presents under the tree to three, like Jesus received from the Three Kings. Other parents have used the rhyme “Something you want. Something you need. Something to wear. Something to read.” to help tame the stuff-itis that can plague us all during the season.
Time is the great equalizer. We all get 24 hours each day. No more and no less. And while the number of hours we get doesn’t change, the number of demands on that time during the holidays seems to skyrocket! Before you commit to a single bake sale or school party, make sure you’ve already made room for what you want to accomplish. For example, do you want to get together with old college friends who are coming back to town? Or, is there a new tradition you’d like to start to celebrate a loved one who has recently passed away? If it is significant to you, go ahead and carve out time for it. Put pen to paper and make a list of those important things and why they are so important. That way, when the stress of the to-do list or the pleading eyes of a well-meaning volunteer coordinator tempt you to shift those priorities, you can take a deep breath and remember what made those important things so significant. It may be difficult, but if you don’t have time to volunteer, then politely decline and (*gasp*) don’t feel obligated to give a reason. Instead, say something like, “I can’t sign up this year, but thank you so much for thinking of me. I wish you the best of luck on the event.” Maintaining boundaries around your priorities will help you truly enjoy the times when you are able to volunteer, because you will be giving that time freely.
The holidays seem to be an especially tender time when it comes to relationships. Past hurts and disappointments may resurface, and what we want from loved ones isn’t always what they can give. Having realistic expectations of ourselves and others is critical. No one is perfect and relationships require a lot of work, particularly when they are compounded by money and time pressures. Here’s a litmus test: Check your “internal should.” These are those things we say to ourselves about our loved ones. Things like, “He should be helping me instead of watching football” or “She should have known that we couldn’t afford to buy that.” Those “internal shoulds” can fast track our relationships right into conflict since they involve assumptions that may or may not be true. A healthier alternative would be to focus on what we can do in those situations. Is the relationship safe enough that we can talk to the family member or friend openly about how we feel and/or ask for help? If you don’t think the relationship is stable enough for open communication, think about ways you can provide self-care. Maybe journaling, resting, talking to a friend, or taking a quick walk can help you get back on track. If the feelings become so overwhelming that they are impacting your daily life, scheduling time to talk with a counselor may be the best next step.
With planning, communication, and self-care, the holiday season can be not only survivable but enjoyable too! Here’s wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas and peaceful holiday season.
Ashley G. Smith, MAMFT, LPC, is a counselor in private practice with Madison Counseling where she works primarily with parents and children, and leads support groups for children and teens with food allergies. You can contact Ashley by phone at 769.231.9914 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org