One of the most challenging times of year can be the holidays. Why is that?
Oh, sure, dealing with ‘witchy Aunt Karen’ isn’t fun. And let’s not even talk about ‘Uncle Glenn’s drinking’, and how he gets louder and more opinionated by the hour. Or trying to avoid your ‘Cousin Pam-the Answer Woman’, who repeatedly tells you what you should do to ‘fix your life’. How to best cope with them is a column for another day, and involves using lots of patience, our best listening skills, and not taking it personally.
Instead, I’m talking here about celebrating a holiday with reasonably functional friends and family. But that, too, can be a challenge. Why? It’s all about our ‘expectations’.
Have you ever noticed how we ‘expect’ that everyone knows the ‘right way’ to do it? They ‘should’ celebrate the holiday just as we do. Eat the same food, prepare it the same way, exchange and open gifts the way we’ve always done it. You get the idea.
And when that doesn’t happen, it creates what I call a brain jangle. It startles us because it’s not the way we expect it to be. It feels wrong. That’s not the way you’re ‘supposed’ to do it.
Here’s an example:
The year I was sixteen, my family went to Easter dinner at the Smith’s house. Jane Smith was a fabulous cook, and I was really looking forward to her turkey dinner. But she had cooked a ham. Brain jangle! You see, my family had always had turkey twice a year: at Christmas and at Easter. I was pretty sure it was a social requirement to have turkey at Easter, and was about to announce that aloud.
Happily, just before I stuck my foot in my mouth, my sister whispered to me that a lot of people serve ham at Easter instead of turkey. Because I knew she is more socially adept than I, she had to be right, and so I kept my mouth shut. But without my sister’s timely intervention, I would have embarrassed my parents, and guaranteed I’d never be invited again to share in their delicious ham. Thank you, Sis!
And that was my introduction to the idea that there is more than one choice when making a holiday dinner. Who knew? And today, there are so many wonderful choices. I’ve had ham, turkey, tamales, prime rib, vegan casserole and more, and it’s all delicious. And I’m a lot more welcome as a guest than I would be if I insisted the host or hostess could only serve turkey. Would you want that kind of guest? Me, neither!
Next, there was my experience as a newlywed, when I discovered that there is more than one way to open Christmas presents.
I was raised in a rambunctious family of six. Christmas morning was a wonderful free-for-all, where all the children opened their presents at the same time. But my new husband was an only child. So ‘Christmas gift opening’ with my new in-laws meant that we all sat in a circle, and we went around the circle, each person opening one gift at a time. Major brain jangle. It just felt ‘wrong’. Why? Because it was the exact opposite of the way I had grown up. It took some mental adjustment on my part to realize my ‘expectations’ of ‘the right way’ were preventing me from comfortably adapting to an alternative. This process worked, too. It might not ever be my favorite way, but I could adapt.
And then there is cleaning up the kitchen after the holiday dinner. Again, if people don’t do it the way you are used to, it can be a brain jangle if you let it.
There is a noted family therapist, Virginia Satir, who is very insightful about the effect our expectations can have on each other. So she decided to take on the challenge of counting all the possible ways you can go from dirty dishes on the table to clean dishes in the cabinet. She discovered that there are over 250 ways to arrive at ‘clean dishes’. 250!
And yet, do you notice that if someone isn’t cleaning the dishes the way we like, it can create an argument?! The power of our expectations gets in the way of having a good time together.
So now, as I share holiday events with friends and family, I try to avoid that ‘brain jangle’. I adjust my expectations before I walk through the door. I remind myself I might learn a new way – their way – to celebrate holiday. It sure makes the holidays a lot more fun!