A Psychologist’s Guide to Making the Most of the Holiday Season

The Winter holidays are upon us once again, bringing an opportunity to take time out to celebrate with family and friends. Department stores are filled with glittery, silvery, wintery decorations and fashionable, trendy new merchandise for sale. This is a time of national celebration and family togetherness. Yet amidst all this celebrating, there is also the potential for psychological stress and hidden pitfalls. It is important to be mindful of these so you don’t experience too much regret come January!

(1) Celebrate Joyfully, But Don’t Go Overboard

Moderation in all things is the key to enjoying the celebration but not using it as an opportunity to abandon healthy routines. This is a special time, with great food, so eat something special or taste many favorite foods, but do some anticipatory planning. Think about your choices and food goals before you get into the tempting situation. Once you’re standing next to the food table, its much harder to resist temptation if you haven’t mentally prepared yourself. Practice positive self-talk, reminding yourself of the importance of making healthy choices and your ability to stick with your food plan. Tell yourself its ok to enjoy a reasonable amount of good food without feeling guilty or ashamed. Both avoiding excessive eating and enjoying the foods you do eat are part of healthy, mindful self-care.

(2) Shop Mindfully

Shopping at the holidays means you face splendiferous selections, time-limited bargains, chaos and crowds. In all of this frenetic activity, its easy to get carried away and blow your budget. Advertisers and stores know how to pull the emotional strings to get the pursestrings to open. They display idealized images of snow, warm and cosy firesides and family fun and togetherness. In reality, many families are a mixed bag emotionally, and you may live far from family. Some of you may be single or recovering from a recent loss or breakup. Some may be working through most of the holidays or money for gifts may be scarce this year. It’s important to see your own life for what it is without comparing it to a commercially-created idea of how things should be. If your holiday celebration wouldn’t meet Martha Stewart’s standards, it doesn’t mean that you are a failure. Don’t buy things you don’t need or too many gifts because you’re trying to create a fantasy world. Make the most of the life you have, even if it doesn’t contain Lululemon or Tory Birch. Celebrate in a way that expresses your uniqueness and your family’s values. And go home with some cash to spare!

(3) Balance Self-Care with Giving to Others

The holiday season is a time for parties and celebration, enjoying the arts or the outdoors, sending cards, cooking, entertaining, worshiping and volunteering. These are enriching and energizing activities if you choose your commitments wisely and keep in mind the need to balance self-care with giving to others. Often family obligations rear their heads, or couples feel torn between demands of the two sets of parents. Remember you always have a choice about how you spend your time. If you enjoy the company of family, family visits can be a lot of fun. It can be valuable for children to feel connected to older relatives and for parents to be  appreciated for what they have given. However, if the relationships are strained or psychologically unhealthy, family demands can feel burdensome. Try to spend quality time together, even if it’s for a shorter period.  It is also important to feel free to express what you feel and be yourself, rather than playing some role to please others. Leave some time for relaxing, taking stock, setting goals, and getting organized for the next year. So connect with others this holiday season but also connect with yourself!

(4) Avoid the Comparison Trap

Another common holiday pitfall results from a wandering and judging mind. In mindfulness terms, we sometimes refer to this as “big deal mind.” This happens when your mind makes a big deal over something and sees this as an assessment of your success or worth. Your mind then starts comparing your life to those of other people with more money, bigger houses, or larger families and decides that you fall short. Single people may wish they were married. Married people may wish their relationships were happier. Almost everybody wishes they were more successful. You may feel unworthy because you don’t have a big friendship network, because they’re not a master chef and entertainer or because you’re alone. The holidays are therefore a great time to develop a mindful attitude. Try to observe your judging thoughts, without buying into them. Deliberately bring your focus back to the now. Let your own values  guide your decisions and actions, not what other people think. Try to feel your connection with all living beings, rather than competing. We are all part of a larger universe and if we seek to contribute rather than compete and compare, we can make an important difference to our world. And that is the real spirit of the holidays!

Copyright Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D.

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