The holiday season used to be my favorite time of year. Other than the time I spent struggling with an eating disorder, most of my memories of Thanksgiving and Christmas from childhood are filled with trips to the mall to pick out gifts, hearing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” endlessly on the radio, attending beautiful candlelight church services on Christmas Eve, the family gathered around playing games or watching movies, no school, a crackling fireplace. The holidays of my childhood and teenage years were, in my memory, filled with joy, light and peace.
But memories are funny things; they play tricks on us. What doesn’t automatically come to mind, but does upon deeper reflection, is the difficult family arguments that would come up around the holidays. The long, painful hours of ballet rehearsal for Nutcracker performances. The Thanksgivings and Christmases spent so anxious about food and my weight that I couldn’t focus on anything else. The constant fear of having to “perform” my recovery at family gatherings. The holidays were magical, but they were also sometimes very, very hard.
And they still can be. In my adult life, I’ve come to have a more balanced relationship with the holidays simply for my own mental and emotional health. We tend to focus on the best memories of events or seasons, and then go into them again, expecting them to live up to our expectations and past experiences. But our good memories are only half the picture. The truth is that the holiday season, just like every other time of year, has its ups and downs, its joys and stresses. In fact, they can be even more stressful due to unrealistic expectations, pressures, forced intimacy with difficult friends or relatives, and food and drink available in excess, with a focus on consumption.
Over the last several years, I’ve changed my mindset in order to survive the holiday season with my peace intact. Rather than looking “forward” to what the holidays will bring, I decide to take each day, gathering, or celebration as it comes and respond to it in the moment. Some gatherings that used to bring great joy may not anymore. I may find that new traditions with new people come to mean more than past ones. I may find that a Christmas without my nuclear family (since I now live abroad in Europe) is actually okay, because it makes me cherish my time with them outside of the Christmas season that much more. I’ve released a lot of expectations for adult holidays to look like childhood holidays, because of the pure, simple reality that nothing is as good, as peaceful, or as perfect as we remember it.
That way, the holiday is filled with a certain kind of peace that may seem like indifference, but is actually a deep-seated, soul-filling joy, rather than an exuberant, saccharine high that only lasts for a few days around Christmas and then leaves you crashing a few days later. The highs may not be as high, but the lows are also not as low. I’ve found balance in not expecting the holidays to live up to any previous experiences, but instead deciding to enjoy however they manifest themselves in the present.
For those in recovery, we’ve experienced the pain and pressure high expectations can place on ourselves and our loved ones. This holiday season let us leave room for mixed emotions. For disappoint and grief, as well as joy and hope. Let us enjoy old traditions and be daring enough to create new ones. Let us take time for self-care, so that we can regulate our emotions with intentionality and reflection, rather than be carried away by them.
Managing expectations might sound like “preparing to be disappointed.” However, it actually is laying the groundwork for a true and abiding joy throughout the holiday season that carries us into the new year. Bringing mindfulness into the holiday and choosing to accept with grace whatever comes – the good as well as the bad – keeps us on steady footing in recovery. This holiday may the best one yet, or it may be a struggle, or it may be a little bit of both. Whatever these special times bring for you, with presence of mind and radical acceptance, the joy of the holiday season will resonate in a way that brings true and lasting peace.