BY ELLEN KENNER PH.D.
“I dread the holidays!” Maria was surprised to hear herself admit this openly as she sat in the lunchroom with her co-workers. Christmas music was playing softly throughout their office. “I have to send out holiday cards. The list has mushroomed with people I hardly know. That will take a chunk out of my life!
What I hate most, Janine nodded, is that my husband and I sentence ourselves to six hours of being on pins-and-needles during the family holiday “celebration” with my alcoholic brother and my obnoxious sister-in-law. I just wait for the sparks to fly.
I find holiday meals boring, Max added, and I have to decorate the whole damn house again. My mom expects us to entertain. She would be crushed if we didn’t all put on a happy face. It’s so phony.
The worst part for me, Evan added, is that it is anything but romantic. My wife is consumed with pleasing everyone else and I’m left out in the cold. I don’t even want to buy her a gift this year, but I’ll have to.
The holidays make me feel like a failure as a parent, Erika added. My kids expect me to buy them iPhones, new wardrobes . . . all I hear is “I want, I want, I want.” I’m going to make them work in a soup kitchen!”
Karina looked at them puzzled. “I absolutely love this time of year. It’s charmed for me. I love writing cards to dear friends. I love decorating our home with wreaths. I love it when my husband comes in and appreciates how cozy and welcoming our home feels. I love him! On Christmas Eve, we dine at a cozy restaurant—very romantic. And I enjoy buying a few special gifts for our kids.
As for my family, I’ve told my abusive father that I don’t enjoy the traditional family gatherings. He gets angry when I decline; his anger is less troubling than the alternative--of forcing myself to go! I refuse to fake happiness. We enjoy spending time with my husband’s family on Christmas Day; it’s special for the kids. His family knows how to make it fun.
Karina’s co-workers became uncomfortably silent. They did not live in Karina’s world. And they resented that she did not echo their complaints. Although a very private part of each one of them was longing for her joy—and curious about how she achieved such calm.
What is Karina’s secret? And what is the deepest cause of the “I dread the holidays” syndrome?”
Notice the complaints of each of Karina’s co-workers. What ties them all together? Dutifully writing cards to people you aren’t close to, dutifully throwing away chunks of time to please others, dutifully visiting relatives who make you feel on “pins and needles,” dutifully decorating mom’s house, dutifully “putting on a happy face,” dutifully pleasing everyone else but those closest to you, dutifully buying your wife a gift, dutifully buying your kids over and above what you want to buy them, dutifully wanting to impose duty on your kids by forcing them to work in soup kitchens.
In a word, the deepest cause of the “I-dread-the-holiday’s” syndrome is a four-letter word: DUTY—unchosen, unwanted obligations--forcing yourself to act against your genuine values. When you try to enjoy your life while drowning in a sea of duty, you undermine your happiness. You destroy any holiday cheer. You betray yourself. No wonder the softly playing Christmas music was irritating to Karina’s co-workers.
When you make choices around the holidays based on “I should . . . ” I must . . . ” “I have to . . . ” you are the main source of your own unhappiness—which is good news. You can say “no” to duty. And the alternative is not a “my-way-or-the-highway” approach, but genuinely asking yourself:
Karina’s secret is that she refuses to force herself to fake happiness. She is honest with herself and assertively honest with others. She is motivated by her healthy values in life, by wants—not by shoulds, ought tos, musts, and have tos.
Shedding a duty approach to life is never easy. The old guilt-ridden habits put up a heck of a fight. But if you learn to detect those moments when you get the “I-dread-the-holidays” feeling, ask yourself what it is you are specifically dreading and see if you can’t alter it. Duty-driven ideas, stored in your subconscious, may keep coming back but you always have the power to question them and to replace duties with things you truly value. Each time you have the courage to be true to your healthy values, you get a tad closer to enjoying the holidays--and more broadly, your life!