Shoulding on the holidays, part 2: Expectations

I look forward to the holidays every year. Just the other day we took our annual trip into the hills to go tree hunting. It was a snowy day with big, fat snowflakes and being out in the woods was so quiet and beautiful it was like being inside a snowglobe. Every branch and blade of grass was wearing its own blanket of fluffy white. Of course, pictures didn’t capture the essence of it, but I tried. Right now we are anxiously awaiting our daughter’s first big-time Nutcracker ballet performance. I’m bringing tissues and will be buying a cocktail. Our cards are addressed and ready to go out. The tree is decorated and the railing has a garland. The season is upon us.

Visions of the ideal holiday with beautiful table settings and glittering lights flood our thoughts this time of year. We imagine lovely parties full of perfect cheese trays, 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.

Mostly, our expectations of the season should center around togetherness and everyone being happy…and food. We expect to be busy…but in a good way; overbooked…but in a good way; buried in colorful wrapping…but in a good way. The reality is that our kids have too many concerts, pageants, and programs, and 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 guilt 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 ‘shoulding’ all over the holidays. We talked about this last week, but it bares 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 by now,” “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. You can choose not to participate in these things without being the neighborhood Grinch. When you focus on everything you should be doing, it takes you out of the present moment and sucks the joy out of everything.

How do you avoid negativity? Stop ‘shoulding’ on the holidays.

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.

Ironically, when we let go of these expectations, things start to work out. Before you know it, the perfect holiday comes to you. Without you having to stress about it. Hence, our snowy tree hunt in the hills, our Moscow Ballet Nutcracker tickets (to a sold-out show) with our daughter unexpectedly performing, the unbelievable scenery around town right now after our last snow, and our pending trip to Grandma’s house over the river and through the woods. Since I’m spending less time trying to mold what is into what I want, I have more time to pay attention to all of this really good stuff I didn’t expect.

I’ll be happy when…

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.

I expect you to…

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 regardless of what their expectations of the holiday are, 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. He didn’t tell you this, and now you’re disappointed. Other people’s actions are beyond your control. If you expect them to perform to your standards you will continue to 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 their screen time the rest of the day. If the dinner is your biggest priority, create your idea of the perfect setting and invite everyone to enjoy the food and the atmosphere on their terms. 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.

Don’t expect thanks

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.

Wrapping it up…

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.

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. 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. 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.

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. Ever notice how seemingly disastrous events oftentimes lead to the most amazing opportunities? You might just end up having fun and making memories. 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 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!

If you find this useful, there’s a good chance your friends will, too. Share this with your friends right away while you are thinking of it. Thanks for reading!

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