We all know the complaints: family grievances, stressful shopping, never enough time to get everything done, fatigue, and collapse. Therapists brace themselves for the holidays as depressed patients become more depressed, addictive patients become more addicted, and winter grayness casts its pall.
So let's change this picture. The holiday season was meant to be the most inspired time of the year. It's an idealistic season when the outer world sleeps so that the inner world can flourish. The secret to making your holiday inspiring is actually quite simple. Be inspiring yourself. As with any change, you must be the change you want to see in others. But how does that come about? Here are some suggestions:
Stop Doing What Never Worked in the First Place
During the holidays, most people get an intense dose of family. It's what we want, but also what we dread. The dread comes from failed expectations. It comes from family members who won't change or who refuse to see that you have changed. So what do we do? We try to revive our expectations. The uncle who always gets drunk and embarrasses everybody? We try to keep him away from the punch. The father figure who resents growing older and keeps over-asserting his authority? We kid him and try to pretend he's not a tiresome bully.
The first rule in dealing with all of this is to stop doing all the things that never worked to begin with. Placating doesn't work. Acting nicer than you feel doesn't work. Giving lavish presents to stingy relatives and resenting their lack of gratitude doesn't work. So stop. When you stop trying to revive your expectations and just let others be who they are, much of your frustration will fall away.
Second, look around and give others what they really want. I'm not talking about psychoanalyzing your family. Most people want simple things: appreciation, gratitude, validation, affection, and someone who will listen. When you consciously provide any of those things, magic occurs.
Don't Blurt Out Hidden Feelings
Nobody loves a time bomb. Yet, emotionally, many people approach the holiday season like time bombs of hidden emotion. They can't wait to blurt out the feelings they've been suppressing since last year's holidays. Resist this impulse, no matter how much hidden resentment, criticism, or payback you feel entitled to express.
What you’re entitled to is releasing those feelings so that they aren't stuck. What you aren't entitled to is aiming them at another person. Do the releasing in private. Write a letter, give a speech, rant and rave, or cry in private. If you sincerely release those toxic emotions in advance, before they have a chance to hurt anyone, you will escape one of the worst holiday traps.
Stay Out of the Box That Others Want to Put You In
Why do you feel that your family has stuffed you into a box? Why won't they treat you as a person who has changed and moved on? Let's be honest. When we see our families, the past takes over. We have a mental image of children, parents, friends, and relatives that is rooted in behavior from childhood. Clinging to the past is the same as clinging to a false perspective.
If you don't want to be stuffed into a box, the answer is fairly simple. Treat others as if they have moved on, and they will do the same for you. That bratty kid brother is now an adult. That sister whose boyfriend you had a crush on is no longer a girl competing for dates. See everyone in the light of the future. If you can identify where anyone wants to go tomorrow, you have the best chance of relating to him or her today. So see today as the beginning of the future, not the tail end of the past.
Tolerate What Is Difficult; Engage With What Is Simple
Some people are difficult, and there's no getting around it. You must tolerate their flaws, whether the irritant is a bad temper, a tendency to drink, cutting remarks, an air of superiority, or lethal self-importance—the actual flaw doesn't matter. Difficult people won't get under your skin once you realize that they don't need to change in order to make you happy. Let them be. Don't react. Don't argue, and most of all, don't act judgmental. It's not your job to make a sinner into a saint.
Engage instead on simple things. I don't mean throwing up distractions about how good the turkey is this year or what the weather is doing. Simplicity means going back to basics. Ask about something that interests the other person. Sympathize with their problems without dwelling too long on them. Offer appreciation by noticing something that the person feels good about. In other words, tune in. I know it's tempting to tune out difficult people, but that's the main reason they keep being difficult. If you simply tune in to how they feel, a bond is established. Then you can talk about anything, including the turkey and the weather.
Do One Inspired Thing, No Matter What Anyone Else Thinks
Up to now, all my points have been about coping. But your holiday won't be inspiring until you go beyond coping. The fact that you survived another Christmas or Thanksgiving isn't really a victory. You will feel victorious when you rise to express an ideal such as love, kindness, giving, and caring. In other words, you need to be inspiring.
Sit down and think about how this can happen. I know a son who felt embarrassed that he could never express the tender side of himself to his family. They assumed that he was a rather tough customer, actually, and treated him that way. So one Christmas he wrote a poem that expressed his most tender feelings toward his mother, who was getting on in years. He printed the poem in a graceful font and had it framed in a silver frame. On Christmas morning, he stood up and read the poem aloud, much to everyone's amazement.
Did he turn into a saint at that moment? Did all his siblings offer glowing praise? No. He got a mixture of reactions, from his mother's tears to his brother's envy. Yet he knew that he had done something inspiring, and that was all that mattered. Other people's reactions are up to them.
I think that's a good model for any inspiring act. Go inside yourself and find those idealistic impulses "they" won't let you express, and realize that it was your own reticence, embarrassment, and timidity that has kept you feeling suppressed. If you don't want to write a poem, you can offer a heartfelt toast, give a present that's a touching remembrance, or provide appreciation to someone who is normally overlooked. Make someone who feels depressed laugh. Make an elderly person feel like the life of the party. You already know what raises your spirits. With that knowledge and a little forethought, you can raise someone else's, and then the idealism of the holiday season will come to pass as a reality rather than one more missed opportunity.