Christmas can be an emotionally challenging and difficult time for many of us. There is such expectation on how Christmas ‘should’ be, yet like the weather, it often fails to deliver on the ‘winter wonderland’ scenes on
the TV adverts. For so many of us our family experience often falls far short of the loving idyllic family reunions depicted in those same snowy adverts. And if you are hosting, this can bring with it an added pressure to deliver the ‘perfect Christmas’.
There is lots of advice available on how best to organise yourself practically in advance in the big day, such as food prep hacks, however, I wonder if there is another way of not only coping but getting something
from the day for yourself?
Think about your own needs first
An example that I often use in clinical practice when illustrating to patients how it is vital that they think of their own needs, is the pre-flight safety briefing that happens before a plane takes off.
Anyone who has flown has sat through at least one of these and there is a particular point in the briefing where the cabin crew explain what you should do if the cabin loses pressure, the oxygen masks drop down and
you are travelling with a dependent. The correct approach is to attend to your own mask first and then your dependent, however, it is surprising how many people think that they should help their dependent fit their
mask first, before attending to their own. Why is it this way around? Because if you try and help your dependent first and have not tended to your own needs, there will be two people in distress rather than one.
And yet for so many of us the inclination is to ignore our own needs and attend to those of others.
Applying the same logic to Christmas, before deciding whom to invite and having any conversations with family and friends about the day itself, first think about your own wants and needs. What are your physical limitations and needs? What can you and can’t you do? How many people can you host without feeling overwhelmed? Who’s company do you enjoy and who is draining? What do you want to get from the day?
The next step is to think about what is negotiable and what is a firm boundary. For example, it may be that you are willing to cater for an additional number of people if you have help or support from others with
cooking. Or, it may be that you are willing to tolerate the presence of someone you find contentious, if another member of the family assures you that they will help you manage that person. However, a firm boundary may be that you have a certain time by when you request everybody leaves (stated in advance).
Wants vs needs
The nature of Christmas combined with the pressure to host, can often mean that any consideration of what you may want from the day gets lost and the focus shifts to being one of ‘surviving the day’. What if it
does not have to be like this? What if you could take some time to calmly consider how you would like not only to ‘host’ the day and cater for everybody, but to play an active role in creating the day that you would like? In other words, what if you were to value your own needs as much as you value everybody else’s?
Hosting does not mean sacrificing yourself
Consider how you do not need to sacrifice yourself in order to host an event for others. People who are worth being in relationship with (and therefore arguably worth spending Christmas with), should be people who are interested in your well-being and needs and will therefore be open to hearing about not only what you can and can’t offer on the day, but also what you would like from it. If they aren’t, then perhaps question whether they are really wanting to celebrate with you as a person, or are simply making use of what you can provide.
Support through relationship
Putting your needs into the mix can feel daunting if it is not something that you are used to doing. And it is generally only possible if we can rely on having an ally, or allies, by our side who are encouraging – this is
often our partner or a close friend. If you are in a relationship, talk to your partner about your needs and wants of Christmas well before the day arrives. Explain to them how you wish to approach hosting Christmas and risk asking for support – emotional as well as practical. This is something you can do with a friend, or friends too.
It can also be really helpful to agree up front how you will ask for support on the actual day and how you would like your partner or friend(s) to support you. Examples may be anything from starting the day together and connecting, through to specific practical requests. You can demonstrate support for each other throughout the day through small reassuring gestures such as visually checking in with one another or making physical contact.
Christmas is only a day and that is really worth bearing that in mind. However the day goes, the world will keep on turning and in all likelihood, the relationships that matter will still be there for you. The expectations we feel in relation to Christmas are largely in our own head and can therefore be challenged. By pausing and accepting that there is no such thing as a ‘fairy-tale Christmas’ we can gain a little space to see it for what it is. It does not have to be perfect nor is it likely to be. Is the goal a ‘picture perfect’ Christmas, or one in which you feel like you are connecting with loved ones and friends?
The past is not the present
For many, memories of past Christmases are difficult and they can reappear like ghosts. However, these ghosts need not dominate your experience in the here-and-now. Accept that it is a difficult time for you and know that it is for many others too, be compassionate with the feelings that the season evokes and remember it is only a day. Sometimes we feel strong emotions on particular days that are simply reminders of the past – echoes – and we actually have the power to create something different. The more you are able to anticipate your wants and needs ahead of Christmas, the less likely the ghosts of the past are to appear and dominate the day.
Alcohol generally makes things worse
Nobody is telling you not to drink on Christmas Day. However, if it is a day that evokes sadness or anxiety, alcohol will not improve these feelings for long. Once it wears off, they will be back with a vengeance and accompanied by a hangover. The opposite of using alcohol to self-soothe is to soothe through relationship. Even if you are not in a relationship with another, you are in a relationship with yourself and can hold yourself in mind.
Even if the day feels full and focused on others, it is always possible to take a few minutes out to calm yourself. You can breathe, come back to the here and now and remind yourself – Christmas is only a day.
Listen to your body
This doesn’t mean act impulsively. It is more about listening for what the vulnerable part of you needs. This may be a hot bath with a good book, a warm drink by the fire, a nice home cooked meal or spending time with a supportive friend. It could also be a long run, or a dance or yoga class. Whatever self-care tool helps you feel well and connected should form part of your preparations for the day and be in place after the day.
Mark Vahrmeyer, UKCP Registered, BHP Co-founder is an integrative psychotherapist with a wide range of clinical experience from both the public and private sectors. He currently sees both individuals and couples, primarily for ongoing psychotherapy. Mark is available at the Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
Further reading by Mark Vahrmeyer –
Can couples counselling fix a relationship?
How to get a mental health diagnosis