Letting go of expectation, and focusing on gratitude, moves you past the holidays and into the New Year healthier in mind and spirit.
I sat down, two weeks before Christmas, to write a post for my own blog. What came to me was the contrast between my usual Christmas experience and how I was feeling this year. Now, as I move into anticipation of 2015, I am coming to an even deeper recognition of the power of my new mindset. Here is to a healthy new year, in body, mind, and spirit!
Christmas is two weeks away as I write this, which means the hectic festivities most people seem to experience are well under way around me. This also means my melancholy would normally be well under way too. This year I am actively challenging my thoughts though, and I have only had one rough day of feeling sorry for myself and lonely. Which I acknowledge came during my monthly PMS week. This is a personal win for me over past years. I attribute this improvement in resilience, outlook on life, and self-control to two emerging mind-sets that I have been strengthening of late: more gratitude and less expectations.
Practicing gratitude daily falls into the top activities that I preach have saved my life and completely changed my perspective about any number of things during the last two and a half years. For well over a year I wrote in a gratitude journal daily at bedtime to help frame my state of mind as I rested. I no longer need to write in it daily, but I still reflect and offer thanks daily. No matter how bad a day has been, you and I can find things to be grateful for. Even when I was on my knees, I could still list: my eyesight, my ability to talk, my hearing, my ability to walk and have functioning limbs, my son, my ability to read and learn new information, my ability to write, my computer and the internet, my freedom to get into the car and go somewhere, and my pets. And just how strong has my ability to find the good in any situation become during my short time of practice?
Here is the example I gave my son when speaking to him about how practicing gratitude really can change your life: During my last vacation I got very sick. In the middle of the night, about five hours after the body wracking nausea had set in, I finally started throwing up.
Something you need to know about me is how much I despise throwing up and what a baby I am about it. I will do anything in my power to avoid it and I always cry during and afterwards. Maybe it’s the same for everyone, I don’t know. This was one of the worst bouts of purging I have ever endured. And in the middle of that awful experience, I thanked my body for knowing how to heal itself and I actively thought of how lucky I was to be getting the poison out of my system. There is no way I could have felt blessed in that situation two years ago.
If I can find a way to feel blessed when vomiting, then surely it is easy to find ways to practice gratitude even during a challenging holiday? It is, once you start actively looking for blessings. And like any exercise, the more you work that gratitude muscle the stronger is gets and the easier it becomes to feel grateful. The active challenge I have right now is confronting my expectations around Christmas and finding the reasons to be grateful.
You might have a host of holiday expectations you aren’t even aware of based on traditions you experienced growing up. I think most of us in North America associate Christmas to having a tree, getting presents, maybe having a stocking on Christmas morning with some chocolate and an orange, family get togethers and a big turkey dinner; does that sound familiar? Here is where another of my top lifesaving activities comes in: mindfulness. I need to assess and recognize what expectations I hold from childhood or the past about Christmas and challenge their usefulness in my adult life now. I need to be mindful of the thoughts I allow to dwell in my sub-conscious.
My natal family is/was quite dysfunctional. I think my mother was a bit of a martyr which was most evident during the holidays when she undoubtedly worked her ass off, but then yearly would blow up at the rest of us for how ungrateful we were. Which we were, I know. So Christmas Day, with the pretty tree and all the presents, yummy food, treats and all of those positive things, was also often fraught with crying and screaming, or the silent treatment. And as soon as my brother and I had both passed the age of 18, my mother became a Buddhist and Christmas ended in my family, because it truly was my mom doing all the work for the holiday.
At the age of 20, as a newly single mom living on her own, I was suddenly left with no one to celebrate Christmas with, and a host of established anxiety around the season. For the next nine years as I raised my son alone, Christmas was a lonely time for me as I did my best to carry on the traditions I grew up with. Everyone else had family to eat with, friends to celebrate with, family that bought them gifts or called to wish them a Merry Christmas, and parties to go to. Not I though, which further perpetuated my negative association to the season.
By the time I started living with M at the age of 30, my Christmas angst was all-consuming and started in November. I soldiered on every year really disliking the season and sent out cards to people who don’t send me cards, phoned my family to pre-emptively strike their lack of a phone call, ate dinner with his family who I strongly disliked, and so on. The first year we collectively boycotted Christmas was 2007 when we went to Hawaii. I thought being away would negate my seasonal sadness. It didn’t work; wherever I go, there I am.
Last year, the first post break-up Christmas and the very first Christmas I lived entirely alone, I participated in the holiday minimally. I bought presents for about five people. I sent out fewer cards. I received one card in the mail. I didn’t put up a tree or decorate at all. It was probably the worst Christmas I have ever experienced. And that was the rock bottom I needed to hit to create change.
This year I haven’t done any decorating yet, although I bought my son a poinsettia; coincidentally he bought me one the same day. I was so grateful for his thoughtfulness and that gift. I might put up the tree this year, although I haven’t done it yet. I have mailed out a total of six Christmas cards. I have offered to wrap anyone’s Christmas presents because I thoroughly enjoy that activity. No one has taken me up on it, but that is okay, because I am managing my expectations. I will probably get the same one card in the mail that I got last year from my financial adviser, and if that doesn’t come I will be okay.
My expectations about Christmas, rather than positive, are incredibly negative. I anticipate feeling lonely or ignored by my natal family. I am aware of the cultural expectations about the holiday, and because I don’t have that, I have always felt like I was missing out on something. Expectations can be overt or subliminal, positive or negative. The problem with expectations is pre-judging a situation and pre-establishing an outcome.
The big difference to years past and this year is how I am managing my expectations for the season. My family isn’t going to change at this time in their life. They will never be what I want them to be and I have to work on accepting that and being grateful for any acknowledgement of Christmas I get from them. The marital family is gone and it is back to being my son and I. I am not the only person who will be away from their significant other during the holidays. None of that is what I long for, but accepting and enjoying what I do have, rather than moping about what I do not have, is the path to peace.
We might all do well to focus on the positives rather than dwell on the negatives. I love my son more than anything, so I will be grateful to have time with him, no matter what we do or do not do on Christmas Day. I expect to get presents from no one, so if I get a gift, I will be grateful that someone thought about me and cared enough about me to part with some of their hard earned cash. Nobody owes me anything and I am not entitled to a certain number of cards or gifts or invitations; those childish expectations need to be challenged until they disappear. And I need to practice gratitude daily for the many blessings I do have during the holiday season and throughout the year.