How is your holiday season going?

Let me tell you about how it’s going for my friend Andy, who celebrates Christmas. Andy is a young executive who travels extensively. He is married to Ginger, and together they have three young children. When we got together, Andy talked about how he had been bracing himself for the beginning of the holiday season (which started the week of Halloween for his young family).

Here is what his fall and early winter look like: Starting the last week in October, it is a non-stop rotation of Halloween parties, pre-Thanksgiving school activities, Thanksgiving with two different sets of aging parents, pre-Christmas school activities, not to mention pre-Christmas kids’ club activities and concerts for each child. Then it’s Christmas and all that entails, like decorating the house, attending parties, hosting parties, gift giving, list making, travel arrangements and having the kids home from school for their breaks!

Needless to say, Andy was feeling stressed and anxious about the upcoming season of gratitude and thankfulness. Right?

Digging Deeper

Andy explained to me how his children had been acting out and not listening.  He and Ginger haven’t been able to come together on a constructive way to handle it. As we talked, Andy quickly transitioned to his feelings of inadequacy as a parent, then blaming his wife and finally discussing the stress of the season I described above. He then talked about feeling lonely and alone going through this time.

What’s getting ready to happen is Andy’s going to have a big fight with Ginger. Imagine this: He starts decorating for Christmas, but the lights are broken. He goes out and buys new lights and puts them up, only for Ginger to point out that they don’t match the rest of the lights. They have an argument about the decorations, that’s really about more than the decorations.

As I listened to Andy tell of his countless holiday stressors, I realized one thing for sure. He and Ginger have been too busy to connect. If Andy could carve out the space to work on his foundational relationship with his wife, the rest of his stresses would subside. Together, they could guide their children with strength. They would be able to manage their holiday season stresses better if they set aside time to connect, and they wouldn’t feel alone in the midst of it all, either. That relationship is the place Andy needed to start to gain control of his holiday stresses. Loneliness exacerbates the intensity of our stresses.

Making Time for Connection

Gratitude is about much more than just counting blessings. We need to find a balance between gratitude for the people who matter most to us,  while being aware of personal challenges of the season around us.

At this point in his life, Andy is serving a number of masters. He’s facing the dilemma of making his kids’ lives full, making his aging parents’ lives full, meeting the expectations of a busy holiday schedule, and achieving a completely different set of goals at work. None of these things are going to change. They are just the reality of life. We can’t control them, but we can own how we respond to them.

Even if he’s with his family, doing holiday traditions or attending parties, those are busy times full of hustle, bustle and expectations. What will help refocus everyone is setting aside quiet time to connect during the holiday season, one-on-one or in small groups. By being proactive about his marriage and other core relationships, Andy can bring gratitude into the season.

How Can Andy Save Christmas?

In lieu of running away and hiding, here are some practical thoughts around what Andy can do to get through the end of the month with a grateful heart.

1.  The first thing Andy can do is tell his boss that he can’t travel for the two weeks surrounding Christmas, and make sure to plan one date night every week through the end of the season. He can also make a point to spend quality one-on-one time with each of his three kids at one point during the month, and gift his parents with experiences they can all do together.

2.  Just accept it. This is the reality in Andy’s life during this season. It’s not intended to push him to the edge. There’s no performance requirement; he chooses these things. He’ll be able to re-evaluate in January. Sometimes the best method when life seems crazy is to say, “I’m going to survive it.”

3.  Connect with his emotions. Andy can ask himself, “What’s the best way for me to manage my emotions in this process?” Then he should ask what he can do about that feeling, instead of jumbling it all together. Andy will need to be clear about what he is feeling in this moment.

4.  Carve out time to be quiet and process. Andy should come inward in order to be able to step outward with a new perspective. He can think about what’s going on each day during the season and prepare for it. So, Andy could cancel appointments, show up for half the performance, be okay with being late or leaving early. Maybe his vice is Starbucks and it’s a slammed day. So Andy can get his favorite holiday drink at Starbucks and just sit down right there and sip it. That’s going to help.

5.  Ask for help. Andy is going to have to ask for help to create time for himself and his wife to connect. It’s okay for him to say, “I need a babysitter today.” There are many ways to ask for help. Sometimes we don’t realize when we need it. He can also recognize when he can offer help. Holidays are about celebrating, but also about giving and receiving.

The last step we can all do: Abandon our holiday narratives. Do you have a picture in your mind of the perfect holiday season? It could include caroling, happy children, those perfectly matching striped pajamas everyone is wearing these days, or a meal where nobody brings up politics. Well, it’s about time you created a new holiday narrative that allows for bloopers. Whatever the picture of your perfect holiday is, imagine it.

Now stop. You‘re dreaming.

Find gratitude for what the reality of what your holiday season is: busy, imperfect, stressing you out.

Twas the night before Christmas when Andy realized, it’s now or never. So he found a sitter and took Ginger out to an early dinner. They were able to connect and find gratitude in the story of this holiday season just in time to go carolling in their neighborhood, assemble the toys, put the cookies and milk out for Santa and turn out the lights.

The end … for now!

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