The holiday season is supposed to be joyous, loving, and celebratory – a supremely generous time when grudges are put aside, mistakes are forgiven, appreciation expressed, and everyone comes together suffused with mutual gratitude and love. So . . . why doesn’t it feel that way?

I often struggle this time of year. When your reality doesn’t match the sparkling lives you see on social media, on television, in ads, and in other people’s holiday cards, the holidays can be a very lonely, very stressful season. Research suggests I’m not the only one feeling this way . . . many people tend to experience more stress and anxiety between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

Much of this malaise we create for ourselves, through unhealthy comparison thinking. We measure our real-life lives against fantasies created by marketers hoping to make a sale – or fictional existences curated by people who want to show off only the beautiful parts of their lives, without any of the messiness or imperfection that are there, too. On some level we all know this. Yet we still get sucked into believing that there are such lives, and that we should be living them. 

The Holiday Shoulds

We should have a close, loving family where everyone gets along and delights in getting together for the holidays. We should have thoughtful, generous gifts for everyone we know. We should make large donations to all the non-profits and causes we believe in. We should have epic, gorgeous feasts that look like spreads in a food magazine. We should create the most magical holiday experiences our children have ever seen. And through it all we should be having fun, and looking amazing, and laughing joyously surrounded by our favorite people.

Should is a dangerous word. It almost always comes along with some kind of external expectation that you didn’t choose for yourself. And at the holidays, “should” usually comes from the unrealistic fantasy lives we’re being bombarded with at every turn.

The Solution

If we want to feel the spirit of the season, we need to create our own reality and our own standards. We define our own acceptable budget, and feel good about sticking to it. We ignore the siren song of retailers and give fewer, more meaningful gifts – like things (or experiences!) we’ve made for people. We decide we’ll express the spirit of the season by being generous with forgiveness, hugs, smiles, and thank yous, because a heartfelt expression of love or gratitude is so much more meaningful than a fancy gift. (And also, by the way, the spiritual raison d’être of the holidays.)

We decide whether we need or want to host a giant family meal that’s sure to spark bad behavior from everyone at the table, or whether another activity might be more enjoyable. We know our limits and boundaries, and we respect them – sitting out some of the many holiday events, and prioritizing time for exercise, sleep, and rest. 

We let go of perfectionism. We reclaim our lives and set our own goals. We stop comparing ourselves to others, and instead embrace our shared humanity. 

That is the true spirit of the holidays. 

Wishing you peace, meaning and love,


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