Your Life Is Not a Holiday Movie, and That’s Okay

The latest holiday movie just started and even if it’s the first time we’ve seen it, we all know what to expect: holiday magic will work its spell on everyone in the town, and just in time, everything will work out perfectly. The hero falls in love, the antagonist has a change of heart, the community rallies to save the factory, the child finds a home, and estranged family members are reunited. Feel-good holiday movies are wildly popular because they’re filled with the simplicity, goodwill and tidy resolutions we long for. Simply put— people love holiday movies becausethey provide an escape and look nothing like our real lives. 

In real life, no matter how much we may love the holidays, this can be a difficult time—especially if it’s the culmination of a painful year. Financial concerns intensify. Grief, loneliness, and isolation grow more acute for some. The nights are longer, the days grow colder and darker. Add in anxiety and pressure to make everyone’s holiday memorable and joy filled, and vulnerabilities intensify. It seems like the harder we try to make everything special, the more keenly aware we are of what is missing, leaving us feeling that we’re somehow falling short.

So what are some steps you can take to reduce stress and enjoy this holiday season?

A good place to start is to show yourself (and others) some compassion. Let this article serve as an invitation for you to slow down and provide yourself the attention and kindness you would a friend or family member. With the help of ideas found in an article written by McLean Hospital on promoting wellbeing during the holidays, the questions below can help you reframe and reset in order to thrive through the holidays, and into the new year.

  1. Are you setting realistic expectations for yourself and others? Last year, C.S. Moss Children’s Hospital studied the impact of the holidays on family wellbeing, and they found that one of the biggest causes of stress during the holidays is unrealistic expectations from both self and others. 
  • Initiate discussions to determine what is most important to you and other members of your family. Doing so will help you develop a list of priorities of how and where you’ll spend your time, energy and money. With open communication and collaboration, everyone will have the opportunity to voice their preferences. In doing so, there is a greater likelihood that you and those you care about will feel less stressed and enjoy the time you spend together.  
  • Show care with self-talk and when communicating with others. Pay attention to how you and others are communicating. When tensions are high, it’s easy to be careless and unkind with self-talk and in responses to the people closest to us. In this busy season, it’s even more important to be mindful of negative self-talk, and to try to reframe and approach things with a positive and forgiving mindset. Giving yourself and others the gift of grace will go a long way to making it a more enjoyable time for all.
  1. What are your “wellness” limits and needs?  What are your “wellness” limits and needs? The holidays often bring out the demanding side of the people. But as Brené Brown said, “our worth and our belonging are not negotiated with other people. We carry those inside of our hearts.” By giving yourself and your family permission to do less, despite the demands of others, space is created for you to have more energy, fun, and to simply “be” in the moment. Even during the holidays, you are allowed—and need—to say what works for you, and what does not. 
  • Set some boundaries and feel confident to communicate them. No one is obligated to accept every Christmas party invitation or attend every performance. Families are not required to cook a full spread from scratch this year, or eat a traditional holiday meal. Parents do not need to spend money they do not have. Individuals are allowed to let someone else oversee the volunteers for the charity event. No one must sing in the choir. The world will keep spinning if you (and others) say “no.” When you identify your true money, time, and energy budgets, you’ll find it much easier to pick the right “yes” for each moment.
  1. Are you, or someone you care about, experiencing pain or grief this holiday season? If this year has been marked by grief or loss, it’s okay for individuals and families to let the holidays feel and be different. Many things can be the cause for sadness or depression during the holidays, but people do not need to get stuck.
  • Be gentle with each other and modify expectations. When processing loss and grief, it’s important for families to talk through what traditions are important to keep for each member, and what can be done differently. If life has changed significantly, it’s helpful to give yourselves permission for the holidays to be different as you adapt to the changing circumstances. 
  • One activity to do alone or with loved ones impacted by loss is to name the losses you’ve experienced this year, what is causing sadness, and how things have changed. Whether you are grieving the way things were, honoring loss, pain, trauma, and grief is an important part of life. 
  • Try to stay connected and avoid isolation during seasons of loss and loneliness. If you or someone you care about are experiencing grief and loss, it’s natural to seek solitude to process and heal, but important to stay connected and avoid complete isolation. Connecting with a loved one, friend, therapist or support group—someone who can listen—can really help people in pain to express and process their feelings, and feel supported.
  • Avoid trying to muffle pain with alcohol, substances, mindless eating, or other destructive distractions. Attempts to numb painful feelings during the holidays also numb us from the things that are meaningful—including connection with each other. Instead, challenge yourself and others to be present, to pay attention, to connect with life in the moment, including the sad, the lonely, and the painful. 

The magic of the season is in the moment…

Even if life looks nothing like a picture-perfect holiday movie, this season can still be beautiful and filled with magic. Maintaining focus on what’s most important for you and those you love, will help you to be present in the little moments. The beauty and power of this season is not in making everyone happy—it exists when you connect deeply with life and each other.

About TLC

The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth (TLC) is a social enterprise company serving the Greater Philadelphia Area. Among its five divisions, TLC offers School-based Staffing Solutions, Mobile Coaching and Counseling, and Heather’s Hope: A Center for Victims of Crime. These major programs are united under TLC’s mission to promote positive choices and cultivate meaningful connections through education, counseling, coaching, and consulting. For more information, go to:

About the Author

MaryJo Burchard (Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership) is co-founder and principal of Concord Solutions, a Virginia-based consultancy firm focused on helping leaders and organizations thrive while facing major disruption. Concord Solutions offers consulting, coaching, training, research, and keynote speaking surrounding trauma-informed leadership and assessing and building change readiness, trust, and belonging

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