There are infinite reasons that holidays are stressful, but two of the biggest ones have to do with buying presents and getting things done. We act as if the holidays are a race to prove our love and create the impossible. No wonder we feel stressed.
December can feel like the home stretch of a marathon. Just when we are most tired, more effort is required. We find ourselves struggling to hit a high note of perfect pitch in all our efforts. As the end of the year approaches and decorations go up, we lunge after this last chance to prove our diligence and devotion. When it comes to love and generosity, we end up trying to nail it, not express it.
Perhaps we are hypnotized into this state by all the advertising and stunning displays. Maybe we feel pressured to show once and for all, this one time a year, how much we love and want to be loved. We start to confuse material action with emotional intimacy. We buy the present and hope they get the message, as if money spent translates into sincerity of feeling. Of course, we fret that it wasn’t enough.
But what if we put into words exactly what we want our recipients to know? What if along with the gifts this year, we write a note that communicates from our heart instead of our wallet? We can still buy the gifts for fun, but we don’t have to leave the message up to chance. Slip a note under the ribbon so the recipient doesn’t have to guess what you want that gift to say.
You can start your note with “I wanted my gift to let you know that…” and then fill in what you hoped to get across. It’s one way to make sure your holiday feelings aren’t a question of getting the right size or picking the right color. I guarantee that once the recipient reads your note, it won’t matter as much what’s in the box.
If your holiday anxieties are more about trying to get everything done, the solution is even simpler: lower your expectations. When it comes to holidays, getting anything done is a major accomplishment. Let your energy be your guide, and get very clear with yourself about your motives. What is the point you’re trying to get across with that gift, party, or dinner? If you think about it from the outside in, trying to make sure everyone has a good time, you may feel very stressed because another person’s experience is not something you have control over. However, if you go about it from the inside out, making your delight in the holiday as your goal, you’ll feel much more energized.
You may find that your motive is the pleasure of giving or having your home full of people you like. You may just want all the yummy leftovers. Whatever it is, think about the event in a way that you can look forward to it, not dread it. Remember that holidays exist because they commemorate a spiritual or cultural message. See if you can feel that message inside you to the point that that your activity transforms from driven busy-ness into the meaningful expression of a truth you hold dear. We have the ability to consecrate our efforts to a greater theme, and when we do that, it no longer feels like we’re working alone or are responsible for everything. Instead, we become part of something bigger that carries us along on a tide of important meaning.
Finally, keep your limits in mind. If you have one arrow and six targets, how many targets can you hit with your arrow? Around the holidays, our answer will be four or five. But just because it’s a special time of year, it is never our job to do the impossible. Your can only pick off those targets one at a time; your immediate job is to decide which targets are most important and how many energy-arrows you have left. Doing one thing at a time brings peace because it is simple cooperation with reality. None of us was made to do multiple things well at once, and when we pretend we can, that overwhelmed feeling will tell us we are getting out of control.
Doing things one at a time makes the holidays a meaningful pilgrimage instead of a forced march. We can let ourselves move toward the holiday with a single, meaningful step at a time. The holidays can either be a meaningless pressure cooker or a time to tune into what’s most precious to you. Be careful not to get caught up in trying so hard to prove your love—or lovability—that the spirit of the season is lost. Instead of wracking your brain about gift ideas, communicate your warmth and appreciation to the people you care about, do one thing at a time, and remember the greater theme of your efforts.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811.