Expectations of the Holidays: How to Stay Emotionally Safe

The holidays come tied in more than just ribbons and bows. They can also come tangled up in expectations. Let’s be honest, it is difficult not to in the world we are living in! Think about it, Christmas music can be heard on the radio as early as October, people willingly leave their Thanksgiving dinners in order to chase the hottest black Friday deal, and companies advertise “new year, new you,” campaigns for months leading up to December 31. With this sort of spectacle happening all around us, it is difficult not to get caught up in it. We become blinded by the twinkle lights, deafened by the endless droning of holiday music, choked by the ever-flowing river of rich food and alcohol that accompany holiday parties, and flooded with cinematic representations of what holiday celebrations should be like. Somewhere within this sensory overload, we lose sight of realistic expectations.


With the promising glow of the holidays surrounding us, we sometimes look at our lives through rose colored glasses. We start to fool ourselves into thinking that the holidays are this magical time that can allow us to mold our families or loved ones into something we want them to be. We expect that old wounds will simply disappear as we sit around the fire or that we won’t be transported directly back to our 7-year-old selves when our family members repeat their old patterns of behavior. We expect to be able to do it all: to be the perfect host, attend all of the parties, pick out the best presents, and carry on all of our traditions. We expect our loved ones to get us the perfect gift that demonstrates their love and appreciation for us. What happens though when inevitably not all of our expectations are met? Of course, we are met with disappointment and sometimes even feelings of depression. It is human to want all of these things, however, when we spend our time imagining out our expectations exactly as we would like them to be, we lose sight of the present moment. In this, we cause ourselves more pain and lose some of the joy we could be having if we had simply let go of our preconceived expectations. So, how do we manage these expectations so that we can be fully present and enjoy the holiday season? Here are a few tips to help you keep them in check.


  1. Remind yourself that the sparkle of the holidays is not enough to obscure family tension or dysfunction. When you find yourself with idyllic family interactions dancing in your head, find a way to ground yourself in the present moment. Do so by smelling essential oils, meditation, applying hand lotion, stretching your muscles, something that brings you back to the present. Practicing being in the present moment will help you to observe what is actually happening instead of placing judgments or forming expectations.
  2. Take time for self-care. The holidays can make us believe that anything is possible, including changing others. Remind yourself that no matter what you do, you cannot change others behavior. Instead, focus your time and energy on taking care of yourself. Do things that make you feel good. Take a bubble bath, read a good book, go for a walk in the snow, or something that recharges you.
  3. Spend time with family members who don’t treat you like your 7-year-old self. Sometimes we have family members, that no matter how we age or grow, still bring out this side of us that we thought we had left behind. This can range from a minor annoyance to a somewhat traumatic experience if you have experienced abuse or dysfunction in your family. If the latter is true, surround yourselves with those family members that you do trust and who bring out the person you are now, not who you were in the past.
  4. Practicing saying no. With all of the holiday parties and get togethers that come with the season, there is absolutely no way we can expect ourselves to attend them all. Trust me, as someone with a birthday that is 5 days before Christmas, I have had plenty of practice with both saying no to party invites and managing my own expectations about others’ attendance at my birthday celebration. I will not say that it has not been difficult, but since I learned to say no and to have limited expectations for others attending my parties, I have made much more peace with this issue. Whoever is meant to be there will be, cherish those who do make it out to spend time with you and be kind to those who cannot, they are managing their own chaotic holiday lives as well.
  5. Lastly, practice having no expectations when it comes to presents. This may sound difficult, and it may be difficult, but it may help to ease some of the disappointment that often follows unmet expectations. Here is where that self-care comes into play again. Whenever you find yourself fantasizing about a certain gift, do something to take care of yourself instead. That way, when Christmas morning comes, and the little box does not reveal what you thought it would, you have already spent the time filling yourself up so that the little box does not have to.


Sometimes it seems that holidays and expectations go hand in hand. In order to stay emotionally safe, it is important to follow some of these steps to manage those expectations. Above all, spend time taking care of yourself. You cannot be fully present or enjoy the season if you are not utilizing self-care. With this, also remember that you cannot and will not change anyone else’s behavior but your own. So, if you are going to manage anyone’s behavior, manage your own. Also, remember that the holidays can be a stressful time that brings a lot of people into therapy. It is okay to ask for a little bit of help and to seek out a counselor. It is all a part of the self-care that will help you to create a truly magical holiday season.


By: Hayley Nelson



Gordon, A. (2016, December 22). Why Expectations Can Ruin the Holidays. Retrieved from



McBride, K. (2013, December 9). Do Holiday Expectations Cause You Angst? 12 Ways to Help.    Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-legacy-distorted-   love/201312/do-holiday-expectations-cause-you-angst-12-ways-help

Walter, L. (2012, December 6). 10 Tips for Surviving the Holidays. Retrieved from             https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/life-without-anxiety/201212/10-tips-  surviving-the-holidays


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