Is striving for the ‘perfect’ Christmas leaving you feeling stressed?
If you answered ‘yes’ then you’re not alone. Research from the charity Mind revealed that one in ten people feel unable to cope at this time of year, a figure that increases to a third when we focus on people with ongoing mental health problems. Surprising given that this is supposed to be ‘the season to be jolly.’ But perhaps that’s exactly the problem. Are the social and cultural pressures to create a ‘Happy Christmas’ having the opposite affect? And is our well-intentioned desire to create a perfect Christmas causing us a whole lot of festive stress? In this article we’re exploring how we can create a truly ’perfect’ Christmas for ourselves. One that isn’t aiming for perfection at all but is instead, focused on Christmas connection.
I have a Christmas confession. This article kept me awake at night. I was trying to craft and create the perfect Christmas article, the best possible gift that I could offer to all of our fabulous readers and 4d friends. But by 3 AM I realised that I had fallen into the very trap I was trying to write about! So many of us want to create the perfect Christmas. We want to surprise and excite our family and friends, through gifts, food, gatherings and games. However, as I learnt in the writing of this article, the pursuit of a ‘perfect’ Christmas can cause us a whole lot of stress and even sleepless nights! So, in this article we’re moving away from Christmas perfection and into a narrative of Christmas connection. Join us as we focus on five themes that will help you to have a happier, healthier and much more connected Christmas. Let go of control, manage your expectations, stop comparing yourself to others, prioritise self-care and step-in to the moment. As I learnt recently from the animated film Kung Fu Panda: “The Past is history, the Future is a mystery and today is a gift. That’s why it’s called Present.”
My anxiety around creating the perfect Christmas article showed up during a work trip to Amsterdam. My mind kept going around in circles, desperately trying to make sure that everyone would enjoy the article. But I was trying to manage the reader’s experience of this article, which is ultimately beyond my control. Thankfully, I managed to step out of this control cycle in the early hours and was at least able to get a few hours sleep!
If you truly want to enjoy Christmas, then stop trying to control every last detail. Of course, this is much easier said than done, because being in control makes us feel safe. We preempt our lives and predict how things should be and as a result, set ourselves up for disappointment when they don’t turn out as planned.
However, if we can stay open to the spontaneity and surprises that Christmas will inevitably bring, we may discover an even better version of events. An unplanned Christmas story, that is in fact, far better than the one you had in mind. Maybe you end up burning the roast potatoes but perhaps this has you all laughing like children and letting go of expectations? Who knows where unexpected joy and delight will show up. Stay open and curious and you’ll start to find so much joy in the small, simple details that define one moment from the next. As we asked in a previous 4D article ‘Micro Experiences, Macro Effects’: “are you conscious of the micro experiences you are creating in the everyday? And can you appreciate the micro experiences that other people are creating for you? Don’t underestimate their power. These seemingly small and simple moments create a ripple effect that can impact the dynamic of a whole relationship.” We can’t control so many things in life- notably other people and how they feel about us (and our work). So trade in micro-managing for micro experiences and take charge of the one thing that you can control: your response to the Christmas around you.
I wanted to send out an article that would help the World to step-into a simpler kind of Christmas. One that isn’t overwhelmed by consumerism, consumption and keeping up with the Jones’ but is instead, focused around the presents we can’t see, like love, laughter and presence. Yet, it’s quite a big ask to expect one article to end the commercialism of Christmas. I had placed an impossible set of expectations on this Christmas ‘gift’ and had therefore, set myself up to fail.
If you also have high expectations, then you may find yourself stepping into Christmas feeling stressed and with a foreboding sense of ‘never enough.’ The human-tendency to always predict the best is known in psychology as ‘the optimism bias’, which is defined as, “the difference between a person’s expectation and the outcome that follows.” Put simply, if we set our expectations too high we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.
So, let’s flip the story. What if we accepted where we are? And who we are? Perhaps it’s not the Christmas we expected but what ever happened to ‘good enough?’ To quote the wonderful words of Osho: “There is no need to be more- you are enough. Everybody is enough.”
Another way I created unrealistic expectations was by comparing this article to other articles. I wanted this one to be bigger and better than any other 4D article (and maybe even better than those other Christmas articles out there…ones that gets thousands of hits and clicks!!) However, comparisons- with both our past selves and other people- cloud our judgement and stop us from seeing our current success. A study in Science reported that activation in brain areas related to reward, respond to relative differences in wealth even more than absolute amounts. Which is why some Silicon Valley billionaires feel disadvantaged because they can’t keep up with their wealthy neighbours.
The rise of social media has increased our ability to compare our Christmases, and offers us instant access into the lives of other people- people that we might not even know. (For example, you might be one of Selena Gomez’s 144.5 million followers or Cristiano Ronaldo’s 148.3!) Yet, this constant scrolling and swiping might be detrimental to your mental health. One study found that Facebook use was linked to both less moment-to-moment happiness and less life satisfaction. Rather than enhancing well-being, the findings suggested that Facebook may be undermining it.
Comparisons are merely oversimplifications of the unique gifts we all possess as human beings. So instead of heading into the holiday season like a headless chicken, why not take a moment to consider your top Christmas priorities and the things that make your celebrations special? This will give you a road map through the endless to-do list and help you to recognise what is most important to you. Perhaps you’ll discover that seeing your Great Aunty is more important than driving two hours to pick up an out-of-stock Christmas toy for your kids. When you work out the things that matter to you, you’ll start to ‘play’ Christmas your way. One of my friends is avoiding Christmas presents this year in favour of donating money to the person’s chosen charity. And my colleague Katie is gifting time by booking experiences and days out to spend with loved ones. Find out what sits with you and your values and create a Christmas that reflects where you are: not your neighbour!
“The Past is history, the Future is a mystery and today is a gift. That’s why it’s called Present.”
– Kung Fu Panda, 2008
In my efforts to please the 4D community I overlooked caring for myself. I ended up stressed, tired and found that the writing process was feeling like hard work. I normally lovethe creative process that comes from creating this content each month, so this was a real red flag.
I’m sure we’ve said this before but self-care isn’t selfish; it’s not an indulgence. But it is a discipline, as making time for no.1 in a season focused on ‘giving’ is much easier said than done. However, as we discussed in our Thanksgiving special last month, giving also includes the gifts that you give to yourself. You might find yourself trying to please everyone on your Christmas list, but don’t forget that YOU should also be on that list.
In fact, we’d go so far as to say that you should be at the very top of your Christmas list. We often talk to clients about embracing ‘selfishness’ because until you are in a good place yourself, you can’t be what you want to be for others. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. A short bath, a 10-minute meditation or a walk around the block can all help to relieve you from stress. But if you feel that you really can’t escape physically, then treat yourself to three, deep and mindful breaths. Deep breathing has been scientifically proven to reduce stress whilst also positively affecting your heart, brain, digestion and immune system. A 2013 study examining the ‘relaxation response’ discovered that breathing exercises, “enhanced expression of genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion and telomere maintenance, and reduced expression of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress-related pathways.” Other powerful ways of evoking this same ‘relaxation response’ include meditation, yoga, tai chi and chanting.
It’s ironic that my article for 4D Human Being involved so much doing. And like my experience with writing, the real ‘gifts’ can so easily get lost in the performance of Christmas: the gift buying, card writing, food prepping. John Lennon’s lyric from the song Beautiful Boy ring true, “Life is what happens when we are busy making other plans.” We can become so focused on all the things we should be doing, that we forget about the being.
So, this year, reconnect with what’s really going on this Christmas. Stop living through the lens of Christmases past, or ones from an imagined future and be with the one that’s happening now. Can we stay present and connected to the Christmas that is playing out all around us? Perhaps you’re feeling a little disappointed because it isn’t quite as you expected. But maybe this year, your Christmas can be much more connected, conscious and current. To use Einstein’s version of the Kung Fu Panda quote I mentioned at the start: “Yesterday is relative, tomorrow is speculative, but today is electric. That’s why it’s called current.”
I like old Christmas movies. I love seeing my friends. I love walking to the pub with my dog. Laughing a lot. Being with family. Having time off. And from my heart to yours, I genuinely wish each and every one of you a Christmas filled with self-care, connection and a whole lot of love. This may not be the most perfect article I was dreaming of and it may not have gone out as early as I was hoping for but maybe that’s a good reflection on Christmas. We can’t always get it done on time and it won’t necessarily be perfect. But if it’s done with honesty, heart, genuineness and love, then it, I, you and we will all be more than good enough.
Happy Christmas from the heart, with love from Philippa and the 4D team x