Before you think one more thought about holiday shopping, decorating, traveling, cooking, party planning or family wrangling, pull out your iPad or a sheet of paper and answer these five questions:
- What are the top 5 things that would make me happy this holiday?
- What are the top 5 things I don’t want to do?
- Who are the top 5 people I would like to spend time with?
- What are the top 5 ways I would like to take care of myself?
- What are the top 5 things I would like to do for other people?
Write what comes to mind first. Don’t take too much time with your answers, and don’t worry if they overlap or you can’t think of five for every question. The main thing is this: If you don’t plan your holiday, everyone else will do it for you. The holidays are like a riptide that comes around once a year. You can let the tide sweep you under, or you can get out ahead of it and ride the wave.
Your Dream Holiday
“Many people have the mindset that they’re going to survive the holidays—do what [it takes] to get to the other side,” says Kate Larsen, MCC, BCC, CWC, executive coach and author of Progress Not Perfection: Your Journey Matters (Expert Publisher 2007). “People feel compelled to do so many things, and they get lost in the maze of trying to figure out how to do it all. What is usually missing is taking time out to think about what you would really enjoy. What would make the holidays more fun and less taxing? When you look back at the holiday, instead of all the things that will make you sigh or roll your eyes, what would you love to say happened?”
Imagine what your ideal holiday looks, sounds, tastes and feels like. Get creative. Are you home relaxing with no pressure to go anywhere? Or are you traveling to someplace new and stimulating? Are you involved in volunteer projects that bring you deep satisfaction, or are you blissfully free of volunteer obligations? Are you surrounded by activities and people you enjoy, or is this year’s ideal holiday quieter, more private?
The more you can fully imagine your holiday vision—not just in your mind’s eye, but with your whole being (using all your senses)—the more likely you are to turn it into reality. “Writing it down is important. Research shows that writing thoughts down changes how we experience them. You might want to also say it out loud or talk to a friend or coach,” says Larsen. “As you’re writing or talking, stop at the idea that makes you smile. Pay attention to what you feel in your energy. What is your heart telling you? What thought keeps coming up over and over again?”
It may help to talk to friends or family about what their ideal holiday is. Ask, “What would you do for the holiday if you could do anything?” Another good question is, “What’s stopping you?”
The answer to the second question often has to do with expectations—both our own and those of others. “We have ideas about other people’s expectations, and sometimes they’re accurate and sometimes not,” says Larsen. “We may expect family members will be very disappointed if we decide not to visit or not to give a lavish gift, but they may be happy for the change.”
When proposing changes, it sometimes helps to manage other people’s expectations by having the conversation in advance. “We had friends we used to visit at their cabin every holiday for 20 years,” Larsen says. “It got to be more of a habit than a real choice. As our kids grew up, we decided we wanted to just hang around the house with each other. So in February I told our friends that our traditions were changing, and we probably wouldn’t go to the cabin next holiday. I confirmed that in August and again before the holiday. Still, as it turned out, they were hurt and offended, but I felt I had done all I could to ease the change. In the end we were happier for our choice. We can’t be responsible for other people’s reactions. It’s okay to disappoint people when it’s unavoidable and that isn’t your intention.”
If you’re looking for a way to broach the subject, you can always start with, “I just read an article about shaking up your holiday traditions and thought this year we might try . . .”
Larsen suggests asking yourself what is really keeping you from doing what you want to do. Who are you afraid of offending? And what would be so awful about that anyway?
Another obstacle may be harboring unrealistic expectations of your own. Are you able to accept that not every holiday will be exactly as you planned it, and that some aspects of the holidays will change with time or will simply be beyond your control?
“You may have to let go of the idea that you will be able to be with your kids this year. Maybe you’re an empty nester; maybe you’ve been through a divorce or experienced a health challenge or the death of a loved one,” says Larsen. “Your holiday may not be what you had hoped for, but how do you want to handle that? What can you do under the circumstances to make the holiday meaningful for you? For example, if you are remembering a loved one who has passed, let that inspire you. How can you include that person’s memory in your holiday?”
Making this year’s holiday more purposeful and intentional could mean doing something huge (proposing? a cruise? a retreat? skydiving? developing a holiday fundraiser?), but your plans could also be relatively small: Spending more time in a hot bath, by the fire, meditating or reading. Enjoying more time making snowmen. Learning to skate— or surf! Shopping early, or skipping gifts altogether. Throwing your favorite board game into your holiday travel suitcase, or baking cookies with your friends’ children. Seeing more family and friends, or limiting the number of relatives you visit.
“We used to see four sets of families plus several aunts,” says Larsen. “Then we finally said ‘uncle’ because we weren’t enjoying it. We were just watching the clock and racing around. We started alternating years with some visits, and eventually we stopped some visits altogether because they just weren’t fun.”
Thriving With Kindness
Cathy Sykora, CHHC, AADP, owner and founder of The Health Coach Group, has found a way to help thousands of people thrive during the holidays. Her approach combines group goal-setting and accountability with an emphasis on kindness and gratitude.
For 5 years Sykora has coordinated closed Facebook “Rock the Holidays” global groups of 25–200 health coaches. “Our holiday groups are always packed. A lot of people get depressed and struggle over the holidays, but when they get into a group and work on goals, they get excited. They just know it’s going to be a great holiday because they take more control of the experience,” says Sykora.
It all starts the week of Thanksgiving and goes through New Year’s Day. Participants set goals in four areas: nutrition, activity, acts of kindness, and gratitude. Goals for nutrition are individually determined and vary widely. “It can be something as simple as not eating sugar or having a salad for lunch every day, or it can be a very precise food plan,” says Sykora. “Activity goals are also individually set. Typically with nutrition and activity goals, we allow ourselves a certain number of ‘free’ days during the holiday season.”
Here’s where it gets interesting. The acts-of-kindness and gratitude goals are the same for all: Write down three things you are grateful for every day, and do a daily act of kindness without expectation of acknowledgment, and without spending any money.
Sykora gives some examples: acknowledging your spouse when he or she does something right, being nice to a checkout employee, not showing your irritation with a friend, calling a lonely relative or helping out at your kid’s school.
“The gratitude list usually grows from three to 10 or 20 or more. For the acts of kindness, you can come up with some pretty good stuff at the end of the day when you’re down to the wire,” Sykora laughs. “Once I came up with letting my husband watch a TV channel I don’t enjoy without complaining!”
Sykora believes the program has been so popular because of the accountability. “There’s strength in groups and in being part of a community. Every day we’re accountable to each other, and we laugh about the giving part of it. The best part of the program is definitely the giving. It helps you to keep things in perspective and to keep your focus on helping others. We don’t want to give [in order] to brag, but we do want to share about the idea when it can help others. Some people do spend a little money, paying it forward at Starbucks®, for example. But a lot of people enjoy the creativity of not spending money—taking someone for a walk at the mall rather than taking them to lunch. It [shifts] the focus off spending, which can be very welcome around the holidays.”
Exercise Your Power of Choice
Having a more purposeful, intentional holiday can replace stress and frustration with creativity, hope and satisfaction. All it takes is 5 minutes to think about what you want the holidays to mean for you this year. “You won’t get to choose all of it, but you have choices. There is a world of difference between creating your holidays and just letting them happen to you,” says Larsen. “You can choose to say Yes to what you really want—you may just have to say No to a few things in order to get there.”