Managing Holiday Expectations

*Written by Peggy Walsh:

What is your most tender holiday memory? Close your eyes a moment and find one in that vast wondrous catalog of pleasant experiences you hold in your brain.

In that memory, were you alone, with a close relation, a stranger? Is your recollection illuminated by candles, a wood fire, lamplight, or glowing bulbs?  Were the scents surrounding you familiar or exotic? Were the sounds soothing or happily chaotic?

Thinking again about that lovely memory, what made it stand out from all the other hoopla of holiday? Was it unexpected warmth? Surprising touch? Out of the blue kindness? Striking good will? An astonishing turnaround of circumstances?

The chance to surprise someone else? A close connection to another person or a moment to yourself?

Is that memory solid in your mind? Now let it go. Because it is not coming back. Seriously. We can’t recreate that experience, try as we might. And oh my, do we try, year after year, season after season. We try to perfectly recreate and relive the memories of years past. An impossibility. Yet, we throw money, decorations, exhaustive energy and loads of food at each holiday in the hopes of recapturing the unattainable.

Then we miss what is here, now. We don’t see the moments right in front of us. There is joy around, but we are all too debilitated and distracted to notice.

The unexpected is memorable because it is exactly that: unexpected. The surprise snowfall. The impetuous kiss. The stunningly smooth dollop of cookie batter. The liberating laughter of camaraderie.

We can’t create the unexpected moment. We can only get out of its way and let it happen.  Perfectionism strangles the unexpected. It allows nothing out of the ordinary, nothing spontaneous or unscheduled to happen. The magical gets planned away.

Any serious change in our health can deal us a startling and unexpected blow.  It may be the main reason we anxiously over plan: we simply want to prevent the pain.

Yet, strangely, it is the experiences we didn’t bargain on, painful or delightful, that often deepen us most. Allow us to find out what we are made of.

If we don’t fully acknowledge the changes in our lives, in ourselves, we continue to plan the same perfect holiday feasts, festivities, decorations, and gift giving, enjoyed in prior years.  Without grieving the loss of health, strength, stamina, identity, or financial stability, we’ll fiercely forge ahead into exhaustion, frustration and disappointment. Family and friends in their own tempered denial follow in kind. Eventually, though, when the shock is fully absorbed, when the obstacles are acknowledged, mourned and accepted, we can adapt another perspective, view the holiday from a different angle. The new angle helps narrow our vision to what is most significant and meaningful.

As with all grief, when one really allows what the unexpected brings, accepts that the holidays will look different from previous ones, but still contain their own magic, new possibilities emerge. With recognition of the unexpected comes realistic planning, scaling down, a joining of forces, delegating and pacing so that cookies can be leisurely baked, meals can be created together, and naps can be had, setting the stage for the joyous unexpected moments to appear.

*Peggy Walsh, M.S.- Is a psychotherapist in private practice in Bala Cynwyd, PA. She specializes in the areas of substance abuse and eating disorders but also sees a number of folks living with MS. She is grateful for the way her patients enrich her life with their interest in seeking understanding and depth in their own lives.

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