Have you ever noticed that most commercials around the holidays depict charming scenes of happy, well-dressed families and immaculate homes decorated to perfection, but most holiday movies center on something (or everything) going wrong? The reality we strive for takes a team of set designers to pull off, but the reality that we connect with is often the one that lets us off the hook – even if it is just to say, “At least we’re not that bad!”
As unbelievable as movies like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or even It’s a Wonderful Life are, the magazine image of the perfect family holiday gathering can be just as unrealistic. So why do so many of us feel the need to try especially hard for perfection when it generally leaves us exhausted and stressed rather than joyful? Because, at least in part, we want people to see us in the best light, and affirm to us that we are good enough.
The fact is judgment abounds this time of year. We judge ourselves in relation to others. (My sister’s house is always immaculate, and mine is always a mess.) We judge others in relation to us. (I can’t believe my brother lets his kids run around like that.) And, we feel others judge us. (My mother-in-law is going to blame me if we’re late.) We even judge people for being judgmental. (Mom is going to spend the whole day comparing me to my cousin who just graduated from Stanford.)
People are much more complex than any single trait, or even a handful of traits. Judgment is a simplistic and reductive way of seeing people because it doesn’t take into account all the experiences, biology and circumstances that have shaped them. John D. Mayer, PhD, a psychology professor and author, points out that judging aspects of someone’s personality (even our own) is an imperfect act, even if that judgment is accurate and made carefully. “Most judgments are particular, focusing in on one single part of a person,” he says. When it comes to being judged by others, he explains, “It’s easy for us to get overly-focused on the one point of criticism. Our attention has a way of singling in, laser-like, on the issue at hand. Most of us, I suspect, feel that we’ve become our flaw. And, if the comment was said among like-minded people, perhaps everyone’s attention is directed collectively to our alleged limitation.” (Mayer, 2013)
Mayer adds that his own instinct when confronting someone’s judgment of him is to do several things: 1) focus solely on the perceived flaw so that it distorts his self-image, 2) feel shame, 3) deny the flaw, 4) react with anger (not necessarily expressed directly) toward the person who pointed it out, 5) feel depressed by his own limitations. None of these, he admits, are helpful.
Instead, he suggests taking a moment to find a broader perspective. “Each of us is a rich, multifaceted individual, a person who carries out many different roles and responsibilities as best we can, and each of us needs the help of others. In that broader context, my flaw may not seem so serious and it is easier to accept what may feel like a personal defect,” he says. Another thing to keep in mind is that someone else’s judgment of you is just their perspective on who you are, “and though there may be truth to it, other opinions are possible. If my attention is broad enough, and I feel connected to other people, I’ll also feel humility—a oneness with other human beings based on the sense that each of us is imperfect.”
The concern over being judged by our family members or friends can lead us to take on more than we are capable of doing in an effort to please them. The resulting stress can have negative consequences. Stress creates a physical response with the release of chemicals such as endorphins, cortisol, and adrenaline. “When the stressor(s) are perceived as too great with which to manage or cope effectively, we can feel overwhelmed,” explains clinical psychologist Marla W. Deibler, PsyD, a nationally recognized expert in anxiety disorders. “This may manifest itself as experiencing intense emotion (i.e., anxiety, depression, irritability, anger), maladaptive thought processes (i.e., worry, rumination, unhelpful thoughts, doubt, helplessness, hopelessness, guilt), and behavior change (i.e., lashing out, crying, panic attack).” (Deibler, 2012)
Not exactly how most of us envision a picture perfect holiday! For starters, then, forget the picture perfect part. Before you start scrubbing the guest bathroom to a brilliant shine, lining the table with precisely matched place settings, slaving over the dinner from scratch, breaking the budget for those unique gifts, or whatever it is you’ll do to put your best foot forward for your next holiday gathering, take a moment to consider your options. Ask yourself whether you are putting your efforts where they will really matter in terms of your own well-being and the enjoyment of your guests.
Try these tips, inspired by Deibler, to beat holiday stress and enjoy the festivities, rather than obsessing over them:
Change your thoughts. When you notice your thoughts turning to worry about things you can’t control, or things that haven’t happened yet, change them to more helpful thoughts. Focus on one task at a time, and enjoy the process rather than fretting over the outcome. As your cooking or decorating or even cleaning, redirect thoughts about how it all will turn out or what people with say and instead, enjoy the process of doing that one thing.
Plan ahead. Organize your time so that you aren’t doing it all the day of the event. Allow yourself some down time to do something relaxing or fun. Plan your budget in advance, as well, to keep from overspending.
Don’t overdo it. If cooking the entire meal is overwhelming, ask others to bring their favorite dishes, simplify the menu, or incorporate pre-made foods. Choose the aspects of the occasion that are most important to you, and let some of the other details go, or hand them off to someone else. It is okay to ask for help, or to politely decline requests for your time and energy if they are more than you can manage.
Be flexible. It’s okay to let go of some traditions, especially in the name of simplifying!
The holidays don’t have to be stressful or overwhelming. If you struggle with letting go of those negative feelings around judgment or pleasing others, however, and need strategies for finding peace, contact Maria Droste’s Access Center at 303-867-4600 to connect with a therapist.
Mayer, J.D. (2013) On Judging and Being Judged Over the Holidays—2013 Edition. How we react to other people’s comments about us. Retrieved on December 16, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-personality-analyst/201311/judging-and-being-judged-over-the-holidays-2013-edition
Deibler, M. (2012). 10 Tips to Beat Holiday Stress. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 17, 2016, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/therapy-that-works/2012/12/5-tips-for-beating-holiday-prep-stress/