When I was twenty, I remember sitting in the living room surrounded by gifts and family and hot tea, and I thought, This is the first year in a long time that I haven’t had anxiety on Christmas day.
I remember how freeing that was. I thought back on years of having at least some anxiety on Thanksgiving or Christmas. I never really knew why that was. They were not too different from ordinary days. We never traveled. We never did anything out of the ordinary except eat and see people and give gifts.
But there was a common thread running through not only these but other “special days” as well, including my birthday. I’ve come to understand that the problem, at least most of the time, has been an anxiety triggered by expectations.
Expectations say that the day must be perfect. Any hint of anxiety is a failure that will ruin the day–and your memories of that day, and your expectations for that day next year–forever. It says that not eating, escaping to be alone, or missing out on any family tradition are failures with lasting consequences.
Expectations are then met by triggers–a loud, busy house full of people, strong food smells, and the pressures to eat more or miss out on sweet potato casserole for the rest of the year.
I would tell myself I won’t be anxious until the very thought became a trigger.
Does anyone relate?
You may have other reasons for being anxious during the holidays, whether that’s seasonal affective disorder, social anxiety, or maybe even fear of connecting with certain people who have hurt you in the past. For me, letting go of the expectations that the day must be perfect has been the first step towards enjoying the holidays again.
If I only eat a few bites of Thanksgiving food, that’s okay, just like it’s okay if I eat a little too much and spend thirty minutes feeling sick. It’s okay if I have to escape for a moment and read a book. It’s okay if I step outside. It’s okay if I don’t feel happy and joyful. It’s okay if I’m late.
Most of all, it’s okay to act like holidays are normal days. Nothing is different except for the expectations and traditions.
So now I wake up on those days and embrace the normalcy of them. I make the same breakfast I always make to practice a familiar routine among the subtle changes in structure. I walk through each moment knowing it doesn’t have to be perfect. And this release of expectations actually helps me to be more peaceful and gracious and joyful. I can focus on the gratitude of thanksgiving and the joy of Christmas that lie deeper than my external circumstances.
The holidays are not perfect for me. I can’t pretend that. I still have had some anxiety around them. But I have also been able to enjoy them like I used to.
My challenge for you and me today is the same as last week–to have grace for ourselves. But I want to add to that. We must also have grace for the things that don’t meet our expectations and carry them with patience. In this season of thanksgiving, let’s be thankful for every small blessing and quiet moment.
Now, I want to give you the chance to respond. What challenges do you face during the holidays, and how do you–or can you–overcome them this year?