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Don't be a supposed-to child for the holidays

[ Dec 6, 2016 ] [ by Wendy Dolber ]

Raise your hand if you think the holidays bring out the best and worst in us. It always seems that by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, the year seems to circle the drain at breakneck speed. So much to do — so little time. The lives of past holidays flash before our eyes as we try to focus on creating the best year yet. But who doesn't love the parties, the family get-togethers, the search for the perfect gift, getting the decorations up before Christmas Eve, the midnight cooking and cleaning, all to the soundtrack of endless holiday music?

The truth is, we don't all love it. Or perhaps we have a love/hate relationship with it. I would guess in the order of total level of enjoyment — at the front of the line would be children and grandparents, followed by young singles and couples, followed by older families, singles and couples, and bringing up the rear would be the one who feels they have to put the whole thing together. Often, the level of enjoyment is directly related to the level of perceived responsibility. Are we making everybody happy? And to the extent we see responsibility as an obligation, the holidays can become one big "supposed-to" jamboree.

Hence, the enormous proliferation of information about holiday stress on the Internet.  On Google, there are close to 75 million results related to heading off stress for the holidays.   Granted, stress management articles are full of wonderful advice about how to relax and stay healthy, manage expectations, avoid depression, loneliness, exhaustion, financial ruin. But you really have to wonder, what do we imagine we're gearing up for here? The Amazing Race? Scaling Mt Kilimanjaro? The Iditarod? What is everyone so stressed about and how can we save them??!! Is it too late to save ourselves??!!

Are you a "supposed-to" child?

Holidays are meant to be about inclusion, nourishment, affirmation, enjoyment, relationships, family values and love, love, love. For some, it's our favorite time of year. We respond to what seems like a universal (albeit largely commercial) call to dive into the zeitgeist of the season — to allow ourselves to be pulled into the tide of love and good will. Whether you're focused on the "holy days" aspect of the season or the more secular expressions, it's also a time when the collective beliefs of our culture about everything we hold dear to our happiness come into play. Not too much pressure. No wonder so many of us wake up to that silent inner scream right after Halloween that doesn't dissipate till the New Year.

Depending on our viewpoint, we see the holidays as a joyous invitation or a mighty dose of societal pressure. Often, along with that clarion call to participate come the perceived expectations, rules, demands and obligations — the holiday supposed-to's. Sometimes the biggest supposed-to of all is related to happiness. Holidays are one of those times of the year when we most consider ourselves responsible for the happiness of others. Are we creating the magic of the holidays for our kids? Are we creating wonderful memories for them — like we have or wished we had? What about friends and family? Did we pick the right gifts? Did we forget anyone? Did we mail our cards and packages on time? Did we plan the perfect meals? Did we make the house look festive enough? Did we contribute to the local food bank? Did we do our part to uphold the holiday spirit?

What if the holidays are really just like every other day of our lives, amplified to the nth degree? If we live our lives driven by what we're supposed to do, instead of what we'd love to do, chances are we'll approach the holidays in the same way. So if you're feeling overwhelmed by all the impending festivities, take a moment to recalibrate by separating your supposed-to's from your love-to's.

Truth or Consequences

Which would you prefer? A gift from someone who feels obligated to give, or a gift from someone who loves to give? An invitation from someone who feels obligated to invite, or an invitation from someone who would love to have you? We all know what it feels like to be on the giving and receiving end of such gifts and invitations. Nothing is fun or inspiring when it becomes a supposed-to or an obligation. Supposed-to sucks the life out of what we'd love to do, but feel obligated to do. It turns generosity into a chore and inserts the hook of a quid pro quo into thoughtfulness. I think most of us would agree — it doesn't feel good.

How can we recalibrate? First, start by hearing yourself. Understand that saying "I have to, I should, I'm supposed to, I need to," implies unpleasant consequences if we don't do the things we say we have to, should, etc. What are the unpleasant consequences that you're imagining? Are you concerned that people you love will be disappointed? Do you imagine they will feel bad? Are you worried about what others will say? For example, you've been invited to a relative's family gathering and you think you should go, but you don't want to. Let's call her Aunt Mary and to add to the drama, let's say Aunt Mary lives alone and is 75 years old.

Next, take responsibility. The trick is not to push imagined unpleasant consequences to the back of your mind but bring them to the surface and take responsibility for them. Part of taking responsibility is knowing that you are the one choosing to care about consequences. No one can make you care about things you don't care about. Whether you are right or wrong about the consequences is not important. What is important is what you believe. For example, you believe if you don't go to the Aunt Mary's party, she will be disappointed.

Now, find out how you feel about the consequences, understanding that consequences in and of themselves have no power to make you feel anything. We feel according to whether we believe the consequences of our actions will be good, bad or neutral for our happiness. Again, take responsibility for the way you think you would feel, not what the consequences would make you feel. For example, I'd feel bad if Aunt Mary were disappointed.

Next, get to the bottom of why you feel the way you do. Often our feelings are shorthand for very specific beliefs we have about any given situation. Why would you feel bad if Aunt Mary were disappointed? Take your time and look into every nook and cranny of your feelings. You might think that you should feel bad; that anyone would feel bad; that it's good to feel bad; that if you didn't feel bad, it would mean something bad about you. For example, if I didn't feel bad if Aunt Mary were disappointed, it would mean I didn't care about her. Or if I didn't feel bad, it would mean there's something wrong with me.

Finally, question the statements you are ultimately making about yourself. Tell the truth about what you really know. If you didn't feel bad if Aunt Mary were disappointed, why would it have to mean you don't care? How does feeling bad prove you care about what you care about? Perhaps if others believe the same thing, we continually prove to each that we have to feel bad. It's a way of broadcasting to each other that "See, I feel bad, therefore I am not a bad person for doing what I want, or not doing what you want." So what are we actually achieving with our bad feelings? What if we trusted ourselves and others enough to allow our real desires to be known and dealt with? Isn't that a lot more loving than camouflaging our true desires?

Wonderful things happen when we stop feeling bad. Then, and only then, can get in touch with what we really care about free of the specter of impending consequences. In this case if we stopped feeling that we're supposed to spend Christmas Eve at Aunt Mary's, and feeling bad if we don't — we can get in touch with what we really do care about. When we no longer feel bad, we may not change what we do at all, but we will just do it freely and happily. Or perhaps we can find a solution that serves us, as well as Aunt Mary. We may even find out that Aunt Mary is caught up in a supposed-to. Sometimes in our circle of family and friends, we maintain traditions that no one enjoys but everyone is caught up in. There's an unspoken rule that we don't talk about it so communication becomes very stilted and limited. Sometimes the simple act of taking responsibility for our own feelings, and acting joyfully from our own values, creates opportunities for ourselves and everyone around us.

Enjoy a supposed-to free holiday

Think about everything you love about the holidays and everything you feel ambivalent, angry, unsettled, stressed, worried (you name it) about. Perhaps those bad feelings are being caused by an underlying supposed-to. Let it out into the light and see what new life you can breathe into your holiday mood.

Consider this:

Like every day of our lives

The holidays are a time of opportunity

A time of choices

A time of navigation between our desires and our capabilities

A time to manage our life to our greatest joy

A time to know that while we love seeing other's happiness

We are not responsible for any happiness but our own

That when we create joy in our own hearts, everything we do is perfect

So do what you love and love what you do

And have happy, happy holidays.

To be happy, know that even though you cannot imagine your happiness in the future, you don’t …

To be happy, know that even though you cannot imagine your happiness in the future, you don’t have to be unhappy today.

[ Bruce Di Marsico ]