Pressure at Home for the Holidays: Overcoming the Myth of the Picture-Perfect Holiday and Finding the Gift of Joy

Blurred image of crowded escalators in a mall.

Snowmen and wreaths began appearing in stores weeks before the first trick-or-treater knocked on Halloween, and now emails touting the latest and greatest pre-Black Friday sales fill our inboxes. Yes, the holiday season is here, along with all the stress and pressure it involves because with this season of joy comes high expectations – for ourselves and from others. We all have this picture in our minds of what the ideal holiday should look like, and we run ourselves into the ground trying to live up to it. The holidays are stressful for everybody, and they can add additional challenges for families living in recovery. However, if we change our paradigm from trying to create “picture-perfect” moments and living up to high expectations, we can give ourselves and our loved ones a new holiday tradition focused on less stress and more joy. Here’s how:

Be realistic about your time commitments and make time to decompress. A lot of people, especially moms, try to do everything, and it can be difficult for them to set boundaries and ask for help. Trying to do too much will only add to your sense of stress. There is only so much time in the day, so scale back on your to-do list and focus on what is truly important. Also, make it a priority to take a break occasionally and decompress. Take a walk, meditate, or sit by the fire reading a book. Whatever recharges your batteries.

Be in the moment. Often in the holidays, we’re so focused on the next task, the next event, the next holiday gathering, that we lose sight of what’s happening here with us now in this moment. Part of managing the pressures of the holidays is trying to stay in the present and be part of the full emotional experience happening right now. Anxiety and depression can start to creep in when we start living too far in the future.

Set boundaries. People often bristle when told they need to set boundaries, because they don’t truly know what that means. Boundaries can simply mean not overbooking yourself, being clear about what you are able to bring to an event, or about people visiting your house. Boundaries don’t have to be harsh; they can be a way to protect yourself emotionally and physically, so you can stay resilient and enjoy the time you have with your family and friends while prioritizing your self-care.

When setting your boundaries, think in terms of the time you have available, the travel you are willing to do, the food you can cook or buy, or the gifts you can give without financial strain. Be clear about what you can realistically do during the holiday period.

Communicate your expectations. People seem better at communicating their needs effectively at other times of the year, but somehow the holidays add an extra level of intensity and pressure to family gatherings that makes communication difficult. None of us are mind readers, yet we often we expect people to intuitively know our needs and expectations. It is unfair to our friends and family to hold them accountable to our unspoken expectations, and, truthfully, we are also being unfair to ourselves because it sets us up to be disappointed and overwhelmed.

Reach out to those around you. Holidays are “supposed to be” a happy, wonderful time. What happens if you’re not feeling happy or wonderful?

If you notice somebody struggling or isolating, it’s okay to reach out. Invite them for coffee and see how they’re doing. There’s also benefit in inviting people to a family function and allowing them the space to say yes or no.

If you are the one who is struggling, reach out to a trusted friend or loved one or seek support with a 12-step group or professional, where you don’t have to put on a façade and act like everything is okay. Find somebody you can talk to, someone that you can be yourself with who will support you. Finding support will reduce that level of pressure to put on a happy face.

Prioritize your self-care. Nurture your whole self mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually for a complete sense of wellness. If you approach potentially difficult times from a good place, then you’ve created a foundation to reduce stress.

Stick to a healthy schedule. It can be tough to sustain self-care every day in the rush of the holidays. Sit down on Sunday and plan out your week – when will you exercise? Meditate? Attend a meeting? Talk to a sponsor? When do you have fun, social time scheduled? Identify the times you anticipate will be stressful and bookend those times with positive activities.

Take a break from social media. Not everything you do needs to be shared immediately on Instagram. It’s hard enough dealing with the demands of the holiday season without adding in the sense that everything must be “picture perfect” to be shared on social media. Plus, it pulls you away from being “present” in the moment. The Pressure to Perform survey commissioned by Caron and conducted by The Harris Poll showed that social media adds tremendously to the stress and pressure that people feel in their lives, making every activity seem like a competition. To learn more about how social media adds pressure to the holidays, please click here.

Fun doesn’t need to revolve around alcohol. There is this sense that we can’t celebrate the holidays without alcohol. That is not true. Festivities center around doing things that we enjoy or bring joy to others: Volunteering, singing, baking, participating in seasonal activities, having hot chocolate or flavored coffees.

Put your recovery first. For those in recovery, or who are looking to make a change in their lives, the holidays with family can be a tough time. That’s why it’s important to make a plan on how to deal with that stress and communicate it with your loved ones.

For early recovery, for that first holiday, it might be wise to go to a family or work event for a much shorter time than usual. I realize that may cause some disruption, but I would certainly encourage families to respect that boundary, if that’s what their loved one asks for.

It is also important for those in recovery to have a support system in place -- a therapist, sponsor, or even a friend -- they can call when they feel stressed. No matter where or when, there is likely to be a community nearby ready to support those in recovery. If traveling to a different city for the holidays, take some time to research for potential support groups, perhaps asking friends if they have a recommendation.

In early recovery, families are more willing to make the adjustments. As more time passes, the family seems to forget about that need. In an ideal situation, families should continue checking with the person in recovery. What is their level of comfort? How would they like to see this holiday play out? Again, families can’t read minds, so it is up to the person in recovery to share their needs, wants and boundaries.

Lastly, remember there is no such thing as a picture-perfect holiday. What are the memories or feelings we want our family and friends to associate with the holidays? Do we want it to be negative or positive? It is okay to skip making Grandma’s cookies if it means reducing the stress level. People overextend themselves during the holidays, and that leads them to get resentful, angry, and frustrated because they’re stretched too thin. Being mindful, where you are fully in the present moment, can help reduce stress. Also, feel empowered to say no when something is not in your best interest. That’s easier said than done, but, again, if you have a support system in place that encourages you to set limits, if you and your partner are on the same page, if you have a realistic picture of what you want the holidays to look like, that can make them easier to manage.

I wish you all a happy, stress-free, and healthy holiday season.

A man and a woman leaning on each other

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