The holidays tend to come with a lot of extra hype, performance pressure, and expectations: It’s the holidays! And we’re all going to be together! And it’s all going to be WONDERFUL! (Really??)
One tool that can help family members enjoy vacations, holidays, and special events is setting realistic expectations ahead of time.
Whether you’re talking about Thanksgiving dinner, the Christmas gift exchange with the in-laws, the trip to Times Square for New Year’s Eve, or anything in between, here are a few questions to help guide the conversation:
1. What are the expectations? Are there expectations of how we will spend our time? What does the schedule look like? Who is expected to be where?
Starting with a clear understanding of all the “players” and the expectations of each allows for stepping back and considering what’s doable and what’s not; what’s primary, what’s peripheral, and what’s negotiable.
2. Are the above expectations realistic? Are there any adjustments we need to make? Who will communicate those adjustments? How can we honor our needs as a couple or a family unit in a way that is respectful and appropriate?
It’s helpful to keep in mind differences in personality as well as personal preference. For instance, if one of you is an introvert, three days of non-stop family togetherness with twenty others is not a reasonable expectation. In that case, try to identify which particular meals or outings are essential, and identify where there’s room in the schedule for the introvert to go have some time to be alone, unwind, and recharge.
3. What are you are most looking forward to? Or the one thing you definitely don’t want to miss?
My husband and I were planning a “rest and relaxation” trip with 4 others after working in a third world country, amidst a civil war, for about a year. We needed a break / change of scenery and were trying to reboot. Someone was brilliant enough to ask the “what are you most looking forward to?” question very early in the planning process and here were the answers: eating a great steak, enjoying the arts and history, access to good shopping, experiencing the local culture, an evening as a couple to celebrate an anniversary, connecting with a certain organization that’s doing such-and-such work to learn more about them, and drinking good coffee at every Starbucks we see. We divided up tasks and each person researched/planned for their favorite…then the others were free to join in and participate – or not. I could go on and on about how helpful this was. It was one of the best trips we’ve ever taken! No hurt feelings, no bitterness about unmet expectations. We all got the main thing we were hoping for, were generally willing to enjoy or support each other’s “favorites,” and had the freedom to not participate if we wanted to choose something else.
4. If you could “pass” or not participate in one activity or one portion of the festivities, what would that be?
It may be helpful to be honest about your least favorite thing. I don’t want to encourage division, and sometimes it is necessary to participate in something that’s not your favorite for the sake of loving someone well. However. If it’s possible for you to sit that out without it being a big deal… rather than enduring with a grumpy attitude and a less-than-pleased expression that just makes others uncomfortable, maybe everyone is free to enjoy the experience a bit more.
5. Is there anything you need from me or any way you would like for me to support you during this event?
It’s amazing how often we can fall into the trap of expecting people to know what we need from them without ever communicating it. If there’s a family member who belittles you and you need your spouse to help in setting and maintaining firm boundaries – ask! If you know that usually a certain situation is super triggering or you’re pretty sure you’ll feel anxious or extra stressed, be clear – and kind – in communicating how you would want to be supported.
Where there’s often extra hype and expectation around holiday events, a little extra time spent clarifying expectations will go a long way towards peace and joy this season.
Mindy Pierce, MA, LPC
MPierce @ GROWCounseling.com