1. Take a step back
Put things in perspective, says Dr. Teri Sota, a clinical psychologist in Toronto. “It’s important to recognize the psychological impact of feeling guilty and to stop the cycle of rumination and self-criticism over it,” she says. Feeling badly because you had to turn down a friend’s party invite, or forgot that you’d promised to bake cookies for your son’s class party and opened the fridge at midnight only to discover you’re out of butter? Cue the guilt! These two experts weigh in on whether you should decline a party invite or not.
But Dr. Sota says you need to address those feelings with mindfulness and self-compassion. “It’s helpful to ask yourself, ‘Is it reasonable or appropriate for me to stress about this? Is it helpful to me or helpful to others? Have I actually done anything wrong?’” Then send your son off with a box of sprinkled doughnuts in the morning — the kids will be every bit as ecstatic as they would be over your trademark holiday shortbreads.
2. Talk about your feelings, and then see if you can compromise
“When I work with clients, I advise them to check in on what’s going on internally and let the people involved know what they’re feeling conflicted about,” says Dr. Sota. “You have the right to say what’s happening for you emotionally, and it actually creates an opportunity for authenticity and emotional intimacy with the people you care about.”
When asked to host a family dinner for the third year in a row, Dr. Sota suggests letting your family know you really want to do it but that it comes at a cost for you. And encourage them to share their feelings, too. (Have a know-it-all cousin, a nosy aunt, or an uncle that over drinks? Check out our holiday survival guide for your family dinners.) “It’s important not to do all the emotional work for others, like assuming their needs or protecting them from feeling bad; they need to participate in the dialogue.” She recommends suggesting compromises, such as alternating homes every year, or finding other ways to divide responsibilities more evenly.
Dr. Nancy Hurst, a registered psychologist in Edmonton, agrees, although she admits that holiday negotiations can be especially fraught with frustration. She suggests dealing with your own emotions of feeling negative first, especially if you’re angry or frustrated, so that you’re better able to approach other people from a caring place with the intention of expressing how you are feeling negative, not judging behaviour. “It would be nice if people always accepted our decisions to create boundaries, but that doesn’t always happen,” she says. “If someone tries to send you on a guilt trip, it doesn’t mean you have to take it. Sometimes people are going to be upset with you and that’s their choice and their responsibility, not yours.”
3. Plan ahead to manage your time
Before you even have a chance to accept any invitations or agree to a hundred extra requests, Dr. Sota recommends taking a moment to consider what it’s going to take to create a healthy balance during the holidays. Do not beat yourself up — you will just end up feeling negative about the whole thing. “Go into the season thinking, ‘OK, what’s this going to look like? If I say “yes” to this event, how can I do something self-restorative for me? What will my downtime be, and how can I ensure that I give myself a chance to do the things I want to do?’ Making this intention and acting on it sends a message to yourself that you’re important, too.”
She suggests adding moments of respite to your to-do list to care for — and reward — yourself, without feeling guilty about doing so. When you start to feel burdened and resentful, it’s a sign that you’re saying “yes” to more than you’re comfortable with, says Dr. Hurst. “Self-managing is about setting priorities and asking yourself, ‘Do I have the time and energy to do this? Is it worth the extra effort?’”
When your calendar starts to look out of control, she suggests booking things for after the holidays. “I personally plan all my work get-togethers for after Christmas,” she says. “Why not make a plan to celebrate the new year or spring?”
4. Remember what matters most
Holiday gift giving is a perfect breeding ground for feeling negative, including sentiments of guilt and inadequacy. A friend arrives at your door with a big, beautifully wrapped box and you quickly discover that she spent far more than you did or — the horror — you didn’t get her anything at all. It’s the stuff of nightmares, but it doesn’t have to be.
We often take far too much stock in gift giving, says Dr. Hurst. Sometimes you just need to be practical about it: Maybe you don’t have the budget to go overboard, and maybe there are other ways you can show people you care about them. “Gifts aren’t necessarily an accurate indicator of how you feel,” she says. “If someone gives you a gift and you have nothing to exchange in return, accept it graciously. You could then give the person a kind, loving thought instead or put it in a thank-you card after the fact.”
She also suggests making a plan to do something nice for them another time and to remember that people often just enjoy gift giving and don’t actually expect anything from you at all. “The most important thing is to hold on to the intention of the season,” she says. “That includes expressing care for the people you love, and there are many ways to show that.”
5. Finally, embrace the imperfection
In today’s society, people are taking on a lot of extra responsibilities all year long, not just over the holidays, says Dr. Jessica Tracy, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and author of Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success. When they inevitably fall short, some people may feel guilty. “Some of us want to do everything, but obviously that’s impossible,” she says. “If our sense of self is based on the feeling that we need to accomplish everything, then we will never be satisfied.”
The solution, she says, is to focus on the things that are most important to you and to do those things well. “Decide that it’s OK to not be the perfect chef,” she says. “Instead, you’ll be the parent who plays games with her kids. Then don’t feel guilty about not being the perfect chef. Look at this other great thing you did that’s more important for the kind of person you want to be.” Dr. Hurst agrees. “It doesn’t have to be perfect; it can just be good enough,” she says. “Perfection doesn’t exist.” And feeling negative about yourself will not help you.
She says that saying “no” to some things and recognizing that, even then, not everything will go according to plan is a good strategy to survive the holidays. “You can’t do everything for everyone or you’ll be depleted and unable to help anyone anyway.” Sometimes this may mean letting go of holiday traditions and recognizing that the “perfect” Christmas from your past may no longer be feasible, especially once you have a family of your own. Dr. Hurst says that so many families struggle to fit in everyone’s traditions and feel guilty about even the thought of omitting one of them. But priorities change, she says. “You have to be flexible with traditions,” she says. “If it feels like there’s a good reason to stop, then there’s no rule that says that everything has to be the same every year.” Next, read up on the five ways to ensure you’ll have a happier holiday than last year.