Shoulding on the Holidays, part 2: Expectations​

I look forward to the holidays every year. Just the other day we had our first snowfall and the air took on that touch of that crispiness it has around the holidays. You know, that bite of chill you feel right before the inside of your nose freezes. Suddenly I was thinking of the annual trip my little family takes into the hills to go tree hunting every year. I bought our tickets to the Nutcracker ballet just the other day and we have begun to talk about which Christmas movies we are most looking forward to. The decorations packed away snug in their totes, innocently hibernating until the designated day — because only a psycho gets them out before Thanksgiving. Am I right?

Visions of the ideal holiday with beautiful table settings and glittering lights start to flood our thoughts. We imagine lovely parties full of engaging conversation and holiday spirit—but not too many spirits. Our expectations start to look like a mix between the opening scene of the Nutcracker ballet and the animated version of a Dickens classic. You can almost see the frosty window panes and hear the carols.

One of my favorite things is turkey dinner. I have the Thanksgiving turkey ordered from Butcher Box (it may not be too late to get yours here) and am already planning the sides. I can almost taste the juicy turkey and the sweet potatoes topped with butter and cinnamon. I even give myself a break from my ketogenic diet and indulge in cornbread stuffing, which is one of my absolute favorites. I love the smell of the celery and onion simmering in butter. If you get my email newsletter, you already saw the green bean casserole recipe I will be using.

When you’re done reading about avoiding holiday expectations, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter to get recipes for the rest of the Thanksgiving meal, including cranberry sauce and Paleo pumpkin pie, plus a bonus holiday shopping list!

Mostly, our expectations of the season center around togetherness and everyone being happy…and food. We’re busy but in a good way. We’re overbooked but in a good way. Our kids have too many concerts, pageants, and programs, our budget is wrecked…Is it any surprise we’re often overly stressed or disappointed? If things don’t measure up to our expectations we tend to be overly harsh on ourselves and may take it out on others, adding to the stress of the season. Yet we still strive for perfection year after year because we want to recreate the joy we remember from childhood or see in holiday movies. We want the holiday we “should” have.

First off, stop “should-ing” all over the holidays. We talked about this last week, but it tolerates explaining again. This phrase sounds similar to another that I could use because the two mean roughly the same thing. By saying things like, “I should have the lights up before Thanksgiving,” “I should uphold every tradition regardless if anyone enjoys them or not,” or “I should go to that party even though I’d really rather stay in,” you create your own stress. Yes, you! You don’t have to go to the party, put up the lights, or stick to the same traditions year after year. You can say no to the events you don’t really want to go to. When you focus on everything you should be doing, it takes you out of the present moment and sucks the joy out of everything.

Expectations are a double-edged sword. On one side expectation is part of the fun of the holiday season. What is in that box? On the other, it invites us to become attached to specific outcomes that are beyond our control. The turkey is perfect, the gifts are perfect, the tree is perfect, the weather is just snowy enough to be festive but not enough to ruin plans…When we become attached to what we believe “should” happen, and then it doesn’t happen, we experience let down. I’m sure we all know the feeling. You didn’t get that ring you really wanted, or the turkey turned out dry, the weather didn’t cooperate, or the family pictures didn’t measure up to your expectations.

Expectation drives us to put conditions on happiness. Saying, “I’ll be happy when…” is a fool-proof way to never experience happiness. Expecting the ring in your stocking, expecting your lighting display to dazzle the neighborhood, or expecting that everyone will show up to Thanksgiving dinner happy and full of enlightened conversation are examples of “I’ll be happy when” expectations. The things in these examples aren’t really what you are hungry for. Maybe you want more validation, or connection, or creativity, or love. These things don’t come from stores or from other people. You have to generate them yourself. When you realize this you understand the feeling the Grinch had when his heart grew three sizes that day.

Buddhists talk about letting go of attachment, which is a similar concept. They believe that attachment leads to suffering. When you let go of attachment—to things, to events, to emotions—it allows you to move past shallow expectation and move into experiencing joy in the present moment. To be truly present means that you are not holding on to past experiences or future expectations. You are open to whatever life wants to throw at you and willing to roll with the punches.

We also run into trouble when we expect others to live up to our vision of the perfect holiday. When we expect others to come running to the table, leave their smartphones behind, use impeccable manners, and happily engage in interesting conversation we are projecting our desires on them. We want them to dress in a certain way and act a certain way in order to conform to our ideal image. Maybe you are even expecting a certain gift from a certain someone. If your goal is for everyone to have the perfect holiday, remember that not everyone shares your vision. They may have a different vision of the perfect holiday, like watching a sporting event while dozing on the couch or quietly reading by the fire. Maybe the certain someone you were expecting the gift from decided not to give anyone gifts this year, but to donate to charity instead. Other people’s actions are beyond your control. If you expect them to perform to your standards you may be disappointed.

That doesn’t mean you have to give up your vision completely. If you have a few non-negotiable traditions that you want to uphold, explain them to those closest to you and forge a compromise that everyone can live with. Don’t expect that every desire will automatically be understood and accepted by everyone. Keep the non-negotiables to a minimum and let go of the rest. For example, you may require guests to put away their phones while they are at the table, but don’t be picky about the dress code. If the dinner is your biggest priority, create your idea of the perfect setting and invite everyone to enjoy the food and the atmosphere. Then let it go. Let it go.

Pour yourself a glass of wine and allow everyone to enjoy the holiday at their leisure. It could be that no one will even notice the artful way you arranged the casserole in the pretty dish or the festive napkin rings. Maybe your special centerpiece got unceremoniously shoved off to the side make more room for food–and that’s okay. Check your judgment, and passive aggressive comments, at the door! You don’t have to sacrifice your feelings in order to save everyone else’s, but you also don’t get to ruin everyone else’s day by insisting they live up to your expectations.

Let’s talk about expectations when giving to those less fortunate. This time of year many people think about giving back. Whether this includes giving to charity, volunteering at a local shelter, or buying gifts for needy children, don’t get hung up on how or if your efforts are recognized. Your gifts might be received without a thank you and people you serve may not seem to appreciate your service. Don’t let it ruin your faith in humanity. Know that it is important to serve anyway. It could be that people are embarrassed to accept charity. It could be they are so far down in their pit of despair that they can’t see the light that you are shining. Serve with a smile and without expectation of thanks. It isn’t about the thanks anyway. If you expect recognition for good deeds, you may need to revisit why you are giving in the first place. Allow the deed itself to lift you up and don’t worry about how it is received.

When we hold onto expectations and things don’t work out the way we had envisioned, we often judge ourselves harshly for it. Why didn’t it work out? There must be something wrong with me. The truth is, it didn’t work out because it was a version of the holiday that existed only in your head, probably put there by too many Christmas movies. We try to coerce the entire experience into being what we want it to be or think it should be rather than what it is. We likely force our expectations on others as well, which decreases their enjoyment of the season. The holiday season is about more than the perfect party, dinner, or gift. If we give up control and let the season be what it is without being attached to the outcome or the perfect details, we open ourselves up to the unexpected. The unexpected might just be way more enjoyable than what we had planned anyway.

Happiness comes from you deciding to be happy regardless of the circumstances. Let go of expectations you have put on yourself and others and open yourself up to experience the present moment whatever that may be. Be flexible and open to any possibility. So Uncle Joe decides to bring his girlfriend at the last minute. Set another place and make her feel welcome. Maybe she will end up being a delightful person. What if your holiday lights end up blowing out the electricity to your oven and dinner is hours late? Don’t get your feathers ruffled. Laugh it off and suggest a card game and some appetizers while you wait. Don’t be upset if someone has to leave before dinner is served. You might just end up having fun and making memories. Ever notice how seemingly disastrous events oftentimes lead to the most amazing opportunities? How often have you heard people say, “Well, it’s too bad X had to happen, but if it didn’t I would have never been able to do Y.” Letting go of expectations opens you up to experience rewards you would have never thought possible. You didn’t know to expect them!

Ever notice how seemingly disastrous events oftentimes lead to the most amazing opportunities? How often have you heard people say, “Well, it’s too bad X had to happen, but if it didn’t I would have never been able to do Y.” Letting go of expectations opens you up to experience rewards you would have never thought possible. You didn’t know to expect them!

Five ways to give up on expectations this holiday season:

  1. If plans fall through, stay open to possibilities. You may enjoy what happens instead even more than what you had planned.
  2. Give without expecting anything in return. If you are attached to being recognized for your charity, maybe you need to revisit why you are giving in the first place.
  3. Plan your event, but don’t get hung up on if everything turns out exactly right. People may not adhere to your dress code, and that’s okay.
  4. Don’t be afraid to say no to events you don’t really want to attend. We are all overbooked this time of year. It is okay to want an evening in with your family.
  5. Remember that happiness comes from within. Don’t expect someone else to create it for you.

Next week, we continue the Shoulding on the Holidays series with part 3: Comparison. Oftentimes our expectations of how the holiday “should” be come about because we are comparing our unedited lives with the highly edited lives of others. Think Christmas cards and social media and how perfect other families look compared to the hot mess you have going on. That’s next week right here!

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