How to find joy this holiday season (when all you really want to do is get it over with)

Lately I’ve been hearing similar messages from friends, family, internet acquaintances, and even random passerbys:

I’m ready for the next two months to be over with. 
I just need to get through the holidays. 
I’m just going to grin and bear it for my kids’ sake. 

I’m no stranger to grief and difficult times. And I know these struggles can be exasperated by this time of year. The holidays can remind us of what’s missing, what has changed in our lives, or stressors that we’re facing. They can also be a time where we might feel like the only way to get through is by putting up a facade- for our families, our friends, and sometimes even for ourselves. That “keep smiling and grin and bear it” approach is exhausting to maintain, but sometimes it’s all that we feel capable of.

Between the expectation society places on us to have a “perfect holiday experience” (and to create a “perfect holiday experience” for our loved ones), and the demands that come from, what has become, such commercialized time of year, we can sometimes lose ourselves and our spirits in all of that hustle and bustle.

Pair those expectations and demands with internal feelings of grief, loss, sadness, anxiety, and other emotions that come from being human, well, let’s just say that these bags we carry don’t always make for a holiday season that’s very merry and bright. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Like I said before, pretending to be perfectly happy through the holidays is exhausting, especially when we are doing it for the sake of others. It takes a lot of energy to put on a smiling face and fake happiness, even if we think it feels easier in the moment. Over time, those fronts we put up to survive the holiday season become overwhelming burdens to carry.

Have you ever had to “fake smile” before? Like when you’re at a work event or a party that maybe you don’t want to be at for whatever reason (like your spouse’s holiday work party for example), so you’ve got your friend the Facade front and center taking the place of your true self so that you can just get through the event. Your friend the Facade is smiling, engaging in small talk, and listening and nodding along to stories (from a multitude of people many of whom you have never met) all night long. 

By the end of the night, when you get into the car to head back home, you notice that your face hurts from fake smiling all night. You might even have a headache from all of that forced happiness, head nodding, and strained attempts at active listening. Not only are you exhausted from having to keep your facade shiny and fresh all night long, but you’re also drained, and want nothing more than to climb into your pajamas and get your head on that pillow, relieved that you won’t have to do this again until next year. 

Now I want you to think about spending time (a party, a girl’s night in, holiday dinner, etc.) with your absolute best friends. You spend the entire evening telling hilarious stories of days passed, sharing inside jokes, reminiscing about fond memories and good times, and literally smiling and belly laughing way passed your bedtime. Your friend the Facade never needs to show up because your true self was there the entire time, present and enjoying the moment. Your smiles weren’t forced, so your face doesn’t hurt. Your laughter was genuine. You’re exhausted, but in a good way, because your spirit isn’t drained. Instead, it’s been renewed, replenished, and restored. 

Now imagine spending an entire two months relying on your friend the Facade to show up for you each and every day through Thanksgiving, the winter holidays, and all the way until the ball drops in Times Square. Just typing out those words feels unbelievably daunting and exhausting. You think your Facade can keep up, but it can’t. It’s unreliable and unpredictable. And because it’s not your true self, it has an expiration date.

By the time you ring in the new year, you are so “over it” all, that the thought of going back to the routines of a post-holiday life is also a disheartening reality. You’ve just spent two months in a negative state of mind, pretending that everything was ok, and now you are faced with normal life again. That life may seem easier, but the exhaustion left over from the Facade will still be there because you have just lost a perfect opportunity to reconnect, renew, replenish, and rejuvenate your spirit over the holiday season.  

So how do we do this? How do we look at the holidays as a time of renewal instead of burden? How do we give ourselves permission to remove the Facade? How do we find those moments (like that party with our friends) where we are truly, genuinely content? How do we let go of the perfect expectation and commercialized image of the holidays and embrace the joy and peace of being present in the moment? How do we transform the energy we use pretending that everything is great, into an experience that actually is? How do we find ways to honor the people in our lives (both past and present) and appreciate the beauty of the season? How do we find ways to rejuvenate our spirits so that we are ready to start a new year with passion, purpose, energy, peace, and joy? 

It begins with practicing self-compassion. The holidays can often make us feel pressured to be perfect. We strive to create the perfect family photo for the perfect holiday card, to perfectly decorate the house in a way that keeps up with the neighbors, to lose weight to work our hips into the perfect party dress, to buy the perfect gifts for our loved ones, to cook the perfect holiday meal, to literally create a picture-perfect holiday experience for those we love.

The problem with perfection is that we place value in what we DO rather than who we ARE. The situation becomes even worse when we tell ourselves what we should be doing. I should be hosting Thanksgiving this year. I should be already done with holiday shopping. I should be able to manage it all.

When we become wrapped up in a bad case of the “shoulds“, we place judgement, guilt, and shame on ourselves, instead of striving for a place of self-compassion, joy, and grace. When we do things because we think we should, a feeling of resentment may cloud the gesture or action. When we do something from a place of love, we bring a positive energy to the gesture that is memorable, long-lasting, and full of joy.

The most beautiful gift that the holidays give us is the gift of time. Schools are closed for winter break, offices shut down for the holidays, and vacation time is often given (or used). The holidays provide us with opportunities for togetherness, and quiet, peaceful times. Finding moments to spend that time with others who life your spirits, and taking time to honor your needs, is the best way to begin to practice self-compassion. Put aside the pressures of perfection, and embrace the joy of togetherness. Say yes to lunch with a friend, take your kids for a walk at the park, volunteer your time at a charitable organization, bake cookies with your spouse, treat yourself to a pedicure, take that fun exercise class you’ve been eyeing, go driving around looking at Christmas lights, start a new holiday tradition (or rekindle one from the past), sit on the couch and watch holiday movies in your pajamas as a family drinking hot cocoa (even if it’s 80 degrees outside). 

50 years from now, you won’t remember that perfect party outfit or the holiday cards you sent that year. But you will remember the cozy, slow, and joyful moments with your nearest and dearest, and yourself. If we are constantly tangled up in the quest for perfection, we are constantly thinking about what’s next on our holiday to-do list (and how much time, money, and energy it will take to complete each task). Instead, try focusing on being present, because in the present is where we can find true happiness. When you find yourself getting lost in the future (or drumming up regrets or guilt of the past- like saying “last year I got the kids this gift, so I have to get something bigger and better this year!), remind yourself to come back to the present. Notice what’s around you (even if it’s a pile of laundry that you’re currently working through), think about or write down what you’re grateful for in that very moment, say something kind to yourself, drop what you’re doing and do something that brings you peace and calm (even if it’s a simple cup of coffee with your favorite seasonal creamer). When you find yourself becoming overwhelmed, or if you feel the urge to put up the Facade, center yourself in the present and intentionally seek moments of joy, content, and appreciation for what’s happening around you. It’s not about being perfectly happy, it’s about being aware and acknowledging that your spirit needs a bit of replenishing in that moment, and following through with those needs so that you can continue to take steps towards joy. 

I encourage you to seek opportunities to find beauty and peace this holiday season. Resist the urge to give into negative thoughts about this time of year, or what this year will bring because of whatever stressor, hardship, or loss you may be facing right now. Reframe those thoughts as they creep into your mind (I just want to get the holidays over with. I’m looking forward to making new memories with my loved ones). Focus on being intentional this year. Focus on building on the good: the opportunities for togetherness and self-care, the simple moments, traditions old and new, trying new things, pausing for awareness and appreciation. And give yourself the space, and the grace to do so. 

This year I encourage you to avoid worrying about how the holidays should be, and instead, embrace the little things that make you and your loved ones feel special, even if it doesn’t fit into the norm of the holidays. Connect with purpose, peace, joy, and love, and disconnect from perfection. Your spirit will thank you for the opportunity to renew and strengthen. 

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Holidays!