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Managing Holiday Expectations

Holiday ExpectationsAs the holiday season approaches, our thoughts turn to time with family and friends, seasonal traditions, special foods and favorite movies. The days may not always be merry and bright for everyone, though. Finding the perfect gifts, having a packed social calendar, sunless winter days, grief from having lost a loved one, trying to create holiday magic for others and extra expenses can all create a lot of pressure and may impact your emotional well-being. There is the added weight of worrying about the continuing pandemic and knowing that many celebrations will not look like they usually do. If this stirs up difficult feelings for you, you are not alone. 

A survey by the American Psychological Association shows that 38% of participants indicated their stress increased during the holiday season. This can lead to physical illness, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Those surveyed gave the following reasons: lack of time, financial pressure, gift-giving, and family gatherings. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 64% of individuals living with a mental illness feel that their conditions worsen around the holidays.

There are ways to prepare ourselves, though, and decrease some of this holiday stress. Let’s start by taking a look at expectations. The Oxford Dictionary defines expectation as “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future” or “a belief that someone will or should achieve something.” Expectations can be at the core of many stresses. Expectations have been set when we are thinking, “I should” or “they should have.”

What expectations are weighing on your mind right now? Where did they come from? Who is depending on you to make it happen? What factors are in your control? What is really at the heart of the situation–are you doing something because you genuinely enjoy it or is it for another reason?

Expectations are generally either realistic or hypothetical. Realistic expectations tend to deal with an actual problem that needs solved now. Hypothetical expectations may regard things that do not currently exist, yet may happen in the future, or the expectation is set so high it is not obtainable–like the perfect Norman Rockwell holiday dinner illustration.

One of the positive things about expectations is that we are the ones that create them. There may be contributing factors moving you in one direction or another, but the expectations you set for yourself can be changed at any time. It is important to realize that we have more control than we think we do. We cannot change what others expect, but we can change our own expectations. One of the first mindsets to change is that we should always fulfill what others want.

Everyone has internalized standards and often they are tied to expectations. This can be particularly challenging when we expect perfection or set expectations that are not realistic. It can make you feel bad about yourself and leave you open to negative thought patterns. It has been said that it takes 25 positive thoughts to get rid of one negative thought. So, we need to engage in a lot of positive thinking.

It is important to take time to care for yourself. It has been a challenging year in many ways, so try to have some compassion for yourself. You do not have to celebrate at the same level you did in years past.  You may have cherished memories, yet that does not mean you cannot recreate them in a more simple way.  You may decide that some holiday traditions were more overwhelming than enjoyable and let them go altogether. Reframing the situation can help you enjoy it differently. As an example, you can look forward to a low-stress holiday in your own home instead of feeling disappointed that you cannot travel.

Reach out to your loved ones and tell them what you need–you cannot always assume they know. Let them know how they can support you. This could be cutting back or canceling typical gatherings, dialing back gift giving, asking for weekly phone calls, helping with shopping or meeting up for a regular walk. Often, people want to help but do not know what to say or where to start.

Psychologists believe that well-being comes from living a life with a balance of activities that give you feelings of pleasure, achievement, and closeness. Self-care includes the basics of a balanced diet, moderate exercise, and plenty of sleep. There are many distractions and stressors around the holidays and it is easy to lose sight of these necessities. Calming activities like reading, meditating, and gratitude journaling can also be helpful. A quote that may be helpful is: “Gratitude turns what we have into enough.” Feeling grateful for what you do have and properly managing expectations will help you get through the holiday season.


Christian Rock, LMSW is a therapist at Brook Lane’s North Village location in Hagerstown. He specializes in treating individuals with depression, anxiety and substance abuse as well as helping people adjust to the stressors of the pandemic.  Christian graduated with a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Shippensburg University, Shippensburg, PA.