Don't let rigid expectations get in the way of your happiness, says Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo
The most wonderful time of the year isn’t all that wonderful for many. Heightened stress, depression and anxiety can be as constant as the holiday songs belting out in stores. Why does sadness prevail for so many during the holidays?
For about 10 million Americans, the cause is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of clinical depression that occurs in late fall/early winter and lasts through spring. For many more, however, the distress is subclinical, meaning it interferes with life but doesn’t prevent you from functioning.
Kick the all-or-nothing mentality
In my practice as a therapist (and, admittedly, in my own life), much holiday woe can be traced back to a common denominator: perfectionism. Perfectionism is not just having a tidy junk drawer. It is an all-or-nothing mentality. For a perfectionist, something is either perfect or a failure, as it should be or terrible, like everyone else or miserable.
You may not think of yourself as a perfectionist, but it’s possible that perfectionism gets in the way of your holiday cheer. Pay attention to language. How often do you say (even internally) the word “should” when thinking about the holidays? For example, “I should buy everyone expensive gifts,” or “My family should offer to help out more.”
The word “should” is a red flag that you are placing rigid expectations on yourself and others. This stringent, perfectionist thinking can cause a lot of distress when things don’t go as you think they “should.” Same stress, only stronger. While you may not get along that well with your family during the rest of the year, your negative exchanges during the holidays can cause the greatest disappointment.
The same goes for loneliness. You might not typically go out much, but the lack of get-togethers during the holidays carries more of a sting. Or maybe your credit card debt is as big as Santa’s belly, but during the holidays you’re more upset because you can’t buy your loved ones everything they want. The holidays bring heightened—perhaps unrealistic—expectations of conviviality, and when those expectations aren’t met, our unhappiness is magnified.
When it comes to health and wellness, do you engage in all-or-nothing thinking, such as, “I had one cookie, so I might as well eat the rest of the plate” or “I have no time to go to the gym, so no exercise for me until January”? Another reason people tend to get the blues during the holidays has to do with health and lifestyle. ’Tis the season for late nights, libations and lots of sugary calories. Unfortunately, lack of sleep, alcohol and sugary processed foods are linked to depressed mood.
Make it “Better Than Perfect”
You put all your energy into making that one day amazing, spending hours planning, preparing and feeling excited. Then the day comes…and goes. A happiness hangover can take over when the event you anticipated for so long is now in the past. Again, an all-or-nothing mindset. So, what can you do to overcome this all-or-nothing approach? Be better than perfect. Better than perfect means dropping the rigid expectations and judgments. Instead, keep your attention on what is important to you.
Here are four steps to do just that:
1) Focus on the positive
While it may be easy to point out what is wrong (“Did cousin Krista really say that!?”), it can still make you feel lousy. Try turning it around by focusing on what you appreciate about people and experiences over the holidays. Yes, Krista really does forget to filter what she says, but she did bring her delicious fudge. Gratitude is a quick and easy way to boost your happiness.
2) Create better than perfect health
Get your sleep and take time to exercise and meditate. It doesn’t have to be perfect. If you can’t get to the gym for a workout, try doing 30 jumping jacks. Does the thought of sitting and meditating for 20 minutes seem impossible? Try taking five deep breaths. It is better than perfect.
3) Give meaningfully
When it comes to giving gifts, there’s no need to spend a ton of money or obsess over the details. Consider something meaningful, such as making a photo album or personalized calendar rather than splurging on an expensive present.
4) Out with the old and in with the new
Just because you’ve always done something a certain way doesn’t mean you need to continue. Drop unwanted holiday burdens and start new traditions important to you. Maybe you’d like to start volunteering as a family. Perhaps you’ve decided to stop sending out holiday cards because they cause you too much stress. Maybe you’d like to institute a new tradition of hosting a potluck meal rather than doing it all yourself.
Learn from the past: Make the changes necessary to create a truly happy holiday for you and your loved ones. Make it a better than perfect celebration.
Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and bestselling author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. She had made many TV and speaking appearances, and is a coach and sought-after consultant.
How much does perfectionism interfere with your life? Find out at BetterThanPerfectQuiz.com.