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Holiday Success = Managing Expectations

When you ask people what the holiday season means to them, you will probably get as many answers as the people you asked. For some, the holiday season brings up memories (some good, some bad, some ugly, some they hope one day to repress) of years past that they either wish or fear could be repeated each year. It can be difficult to know what to expect and how to prepare. I find it easy to feel overwhelmed and distracted by the bombardment of messages about the holidays (you should feel happy, you should spend time with family, you should throw parties, you should buy lots of stuff, you should make resolutions, you should or shouldn’t eat lots of sweets, you should compete with your neighbor for the most electricity used to light the exterior of your dwelling, etc.). By this time in the season, I’m tempted to start dreaming of life on a deserted island.

Seriously though, it can be easy to be weighed down by the messages we hear or expectations we have for the holiday season. I often talk with people who have had a history of conflictual family interactions over the holidays and each year they hope that the conflicts will magically disappear, yet they find themselves falling into the same patterns time and time again. So what is one to do? My advice is to be very intentional about setting and meeting a very modest, achievable goal.

The advantage of having very modest goals is that they are easier to achieve. This increases the likelihood of success and decreases the opportunities for disappointment. Most conflicts that arise often have to do with an unmet expectation. If I expect my grumpy uncle to suddenly be nice to me, I’m setting myself up for disappointment, which then leads to frustration, which then leads to conflicts. High expectations bring “shoulds” along with them. “My uncle should be nice to me”, “my friends should be thoughtful toward me in the same way I’m trying to be thoughtful toward them”, “my family should know that I’m going through a tough time right now”. And as I’ve said before, “should” is one of the most unhelpful and damaging words in the English language.

If instead of expecting Uncle Grumpy to be nice to me, I set a modest goal of making my uncle crack a smile, then I will be less frustrated with his grumpiness and I can be focused on something within my control (trying to come up with a joke grumpy people find funny). Or even more achievable, I could focus on simply giving Uncle Grumpy a smile when I see him and saying, “It’s good to see you” in a sincere voice. The success of this more-achievable goal is entirely within my control. It does not require anything from anyone else. Therefore my expectations are based on my ability. The only things that need to change are my behavior and thinking.

If you are spending the holidays by yourself, try developing your own traditions like volunteering at a soup kitchen or hospital, spending time with friends locally, or making new friends who are also spending the holidays by themselves and doing something together.

I find that managing expectations is a very active process. If you aren’t careful, your expectations can start to grow out of control without you even realizing it. So my simple tips for this holiday season are to;

  • focus on managing your expectations
  • get rid of the “shoulds” statements
  • develop modest goals within your control
  • decide what you want the holidays to be about
  • focus on making the holidays about that
  • and if you have kids, encourage them to do the same

Happy Holidays and may you be surprised beyond your modest expectations.



Shawn Healy, Ph.D.



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