The Emotional Gifts and Perils of the Holiday Season


As Thanksgiving kicks off our annual holiday season with Christmas, Hanukkah and the New Year not far behind, the predictable sample of strong emotions surfaces ranging from joy, hope and fulfillment to disappointment, disillusionment and sadness. While changes in our emotions are not unusual throughout the year, they are heightened now and we often feel more fragile and vulnerable during this season. The question for us as we manage our own emotional teeter totter, while also trying to help others, is what can we do that will help us all find joy and satisfaction? We suggest five doable tips to help you use Emotional Intelligence to meet the challenges of the holidays. We know from experience, they can make a difference to you and those you care about.

1. Right Size Your Expectations
Expectations are a fact of life and they can be both a saboteur to our emotional health and a catalyst for joy and contentment. It is not possible, nor is it desirable, to have no expectations but they are an Achilles heel if we use them as a rigorous accountability checklist rather than a flexible guide. In research conducted on organizational stress, the top two sources of distress were expectations of self and others. Both in an out of work, we have expectations of self and others daily, whether we are aware of them or not. While doing away with them is not a realistic option, managing them is. Our best teacher, the late Dr. John E. Jones, stressed that unmet expectations are the trigger for any shade of anger, from mild disappointment to full blown rage. Step 1 in having healthy, satisfying holidays is to think ahead about what the realistic highs and lows may be given the predictable pressures added to our lives, as well as the complex family dynamics that accompany the holidays. Recall your history … both the ups and downs and pat yourself on the back for what you have managed well. Then write down a thing or two that you have learned over the years and convert that learning into a specific behavior that you commit to.

2. Honor Your Own Needs and Wants
While the holiday is not all about, nor only about you, your happiness and satisfaction do matter and your needs deserve consideration. Step 2 then, asks you to be introspective and be honest about a few things as you answer two questions:

a. How much time and connection do you need with others? What is your emotional tipping point? Can you identify that metric that takes you from feeling loving and being open and joyful to cautious, cynical and eventually annoyed or irritated? Know the triggers. Are there certain people whose very presence pushes buttons? Do extra responsibilities and commitments, or longer to do lists, make you cranky and short of patience? Whatever your hook is, start the reframing process now. That aunt that is overbearing? Yes, it is true she is…. It may also be true that she is 87, lonely, coping the best she can and continues to be loving and supportive in her own maddening way. We all have those who are tough to deal with, and believe it or not, we may be that person for others. Figure out what you need and take care of yourself.

b. Can You Articulate, Then Reframe Your Needs? With tradition and rituals come patterns. Some are as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning. Are the issues ethical and values based or could they be simply individual differences, such as those between introverts and extroverts? Are some people control freaks who need everything their way, or are some too laissez-faire and seem to be indifferent? Whatever the answer, make a list of the ones that annoy you and spend some time getting to the heart of what they do that pushes your buttons. Some questions to ask yourself may center around where your control and approval buttons get hammered. Are there situations where some values get violated? Your challenge and opportunity come when you try to reframe these experiences. We had a colleague, Alan Teller, who used to say, “Everything in life is either for your education or your entertainment. If you’re not having fun, you must be learning something.” Harvest your learning.

3. Cut Yourself Some Slack While Still Making Healthy Choices
The holidays seem to always push the “need a little leeway” buttons concerning diet and exercise. During this culinary tempting season, we know of no better way to help you hang on to, and be mindful of healthy habits while also providing some discretion in your choices, than to have you check out the book, Eat Move Sleep by Tom Rath. We loved it because it is a quick easy read, which leaves you with 90 suggestions, some of which you probably already do, and some new ones to incorporate. It is not preachy, just practical and helpful. If you want to take good care of yourself emotionally and physically in a season that is historically precarious, this book is a catalyst for being much more intentional.

4. Create Some “Can Hardly Waits.”
We read lots about people having bucket lists that have them going to Machu Picchu or jumping out of helicopters to get a thrill. Nothing wrong with those! They can be terrific. But we are talking about smaller scale things that you keep saying you would like to do but haven’t, and they can be close to home. Is there a local museum you have been wanting to visit? If so, take kids, go with neighbors or enjoy the trip solo. Losing yourself in a museum, a neighborhood art show, or taking a stroll in some promenade that is full of life and street entertainers, can be an enriching treat. How about doing something more active and outdoors. Depending on your location, take a hike, go ice skating/sledding down a hill in your own neighborhood or get your friends together who play basketball or some other fun sport. Finding something doable in your own location can broaden your connection to your larger community. We are betting that the connection can be not only energizing and satisfying on its own, but also helpful in creating that sense of place and belonging we all need and which is even more acute during the holidays. Designing “can hardly waits” with family and friends that expand your knowledge and relationships within the place you call home can be both very healthy and tons of fun.

5. There is No Substitute for Feeling and Expressing Gratitude
Finally, any list worth its salt that suggests best ways to appreciate this season has to emphasize the idea of gratitude. It is essential for mental health and for managing emotions at all times, but especially in times with heightened vulnerability. Gratitude will not fix stressful, painful or annoying situations but it can definitely help you reframe them. We have learned so much from sages through the ages. Here are three examples. Specifically, Shakespeare talked about attitude in Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” It may not have been written in our era but it is timeless. As Shakespeare simply but eloquently tells us, we have the power to shape that mindset. In the book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl said “When the last of man’s freedoms is taken away, we all have the choice of our own attitude in a given set of circumstances.” In other words, an attitude of gratitude never goes out of style. Frankl said this after surviving three concentration camps in World War II. We can all learn from him. And finally, in a quote from a motivational speaker in our own time, Tony Robbins, we are inspired anew. He recently suggested the following; “Trade your expectations for appreciation and your life will become a miracle.” There is no time like the holiday season to emphasize gratitude and appreciation, and enable your own miracles. Do yourself a favor and keep a gratitude journal that encourages you to write 3 to 5 blessings at the end of every day. Doing so can reframe your whole day and leave you with deep feelings of appreciation.