Lots of people feel down or angst-ridden during the holiday season, and many will say that this malaise stems not from too much fruitcake consumption (surprisingly), but from our expectations – of ourselves, others, and the holidays themselves. The fact that society and the media constantly pump us full of unhealthy messages regarding how we should feel, behave or spend time during the holidays doesn’t help.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the damage caused by All or Nothing thinking, a type of cognitive distortion that involves seeing things in absolute (ex: perfect or horrible, success or failure, always or never) terms.
Since then, I’ve come to notice that there’s a lot of cultural all-or-nothing thinking involved in the holiday narrative as well:
You’re either the Merry Whos of Whoville, or The Grinch.
You’re either Nephew Fred, or Ebenezer Scrooge.
You’re either gallivanting through the snow-lined streets dressed like an elf, handing out candy canes and holiday cheer with reckless abandon, or sequestered in your damp, dark apartment cursing the world and crying into an emptied Chinese take-out box.
You either love the holidays, or you despise them.
If you are reading this and feeling the strain of all or nothing holiday expectations (self-imposed or otherwise), I challenge you to try something different this year:
I challenge you to take a “good enough” approach.
Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott coined the concept of the “good enough (parent)” in 1953. Winnicott, through observation of thousands of mothers and their children/babies, recognized that a “good enough” parent, by failing to adapt to every need of their child, actually helps the child to adapt to the realities of their external environment.
A “good enough” parent will not, for example, try to be perfect themselves, and in turn not expect their child to be perfect. They are realistic – instead of projecting idealized fantasies onto themselves as parents or their child, they work to understand and respect their child for who they are. A “good enough” parent will provide an amount of help or support needed, but won’t overindulge the child, and they are mindful of the child’s experience of childhood instead of over-focusing on the child’s future as an adult.
The “good enough” approach benefits the child in allowing them to be seen for their true selves, develop skills for adaptation and survival, and hold realistic expectations for themselves, others and the world.
Winnicott’s “good enough” parent concept can, I believe, also be applied to other areas of life: The “good enough” partner, neighbor, employee, adult child, friend, sister. The “good enough” high school orchestra performance, project presentation, report card, slice of pizza, performance review, art project.
The “good enough” holidays?
So how can you adapt Winnicott’s “good enough” approach to let yourself off the unrealistic expectation hook this holiday season?
Don’t expect things to be perfect, or even try to make them so. I know for some of us recovering perfectionists, this will be a challenge, but it gets easier with practice and exposure. “Good enough” is the new name of the game, and it’s better than being perfect. Perfect is setting yourself up for failure, disappointment and, at the very least, exhaustion. “Good enough” is about being authentic, kind to yourself, attuned to your true needs, and practicing compassion.
Focus instead on what YOU want to get out of the holidays, and on what you can control. Instead aspiring to live out some Hallmark Channel fairy tale (no hate to Hallmark Channel movies, by the way), maybe what matters to you personally is getting to talk to a few friends and family members, relaxing with a favorite book or show, eating some yummy food, volunteering for a few hours, or making one person smile. Reflect on what will make your holiday feel meaningful and reject the notion that things need to look, be, or feel a specific way.
Practice mindfulness. I’ve written about mindfulness many times on this blog, and it keeps coming up because it’s an amazing tool that can be applied to any situation. Mindfulness is the practice of waking up to the present moment and allowing it to exist as it is with non-judgment and acceptance.
It is NOT about trying to fight with or change your feelings or thoughts.
Don’t try to turn off the urge to make your house look picture perfect for Kwanzaa – be mindful of and acknowledge this feeling, but choose not to act on it. Don’t attempt to shut down the longing you feel for your family to get along at Hanukkah, even though they never do – feel the feelings and acknowledge that it’s hard when things aren’t the way you hoped they would be. Don’t try to jolly yourself out of feeling lonely because you don’t have a romantic partner to share Christmas with – let yourself feel everything that comes up, with gentle self-compassion.
In the end, choosing to have a “good enough” holiday season takes courage. It requires you to go against the grain of all the societal messaging, the dysfunctional consumerism, the perfectionism, “shoulds” and noise to instead carve out your own path and create your own traditions, based on your values and needs. It may feel scary and unfamiliar to do this at first, but the result could be a memory you end up treasuring for many holiday seasons to come.
Happy “good enough” holidays!
If you are having a really hard time and/or having thoughts of hurting yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They are available to talk to you 24/7. Even during the holidays.
Beat Back the Holiday Blues (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2013) https://www.nami.org/holidayblues
To Be Good Enough (Ratnapalan & Batty, 2009) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2654842/
The Good Enough Parent is the Best Parent (Gray, 2015) https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201512/the-good-enough-parent-is-the-best-parent