How to put some honest joy in your ‘Holiday Smile’

As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, December 14, 2006

Here we go again. It’s that time of year when, no matter what, we feel compelled to put on a joyous face, much like a Halloween mask. We are often particularly aware of slapping it on as we prepare for holiday parties. No matter what we are feeling, that smiling mask with happy eyes is an essential part of our costume. Unfortunately, an obligatory smile is dishonest and uncomfortable to wear.

However, with a little forethought, the holiday festivities can feel more … well, genuinely festive, even if you’re not one of those people who naturally enjoys the holidays. Prepare yourself for those upcoming parties by taking the following steps.

Get a little perspective. Assess each set of relationships in your life, including family, social, and work situations. Ask yourself, are these warm, caring relationships? Or, are they more superficial? Maybe they are highly competitive, critical, or even hostile. Whatever the case, think about what you can realistically expect from others in each part of your life.
Spotting trouble doesn’t have to be about anger or blame. You might find that you are unhappy in a situation because you have a poor “fit” with those around you. For example, you might be a quiet person in a particularly outgoing group. You can even feel such differences within your own family.

If an honest assessment reveals that you are uncomfortable with certain people, give yourself permission to know and accept it. Dismissing this problem as unimportant might leave you blindsided by your own emotional response to someone. Instead, pay attention to any discomfort with others. Then prepare yourself to make the best of parties involving those people.

Consciously develop realistic expectations. Even though this is a season to be loving and generous, it is not a season to abandon all reality. So, expect very little from the grump in the next office when you offer homemade cookies. And, don’t expect to win favor with your normally hostile in-laws just because the calendar says it’s December.

Be nice. Be generous. Be giving. But do it all because it feels good—not because you’re looking for an uncharacteristic response. That’s asking for annoyance, frustration, or perhaps even worse. And unrealistic expectations are exactly what you have when you are expecting someone to be different from what they are—even if all you are looking for is as simple as a heart-felt thank you.

Also, remember that holiday parties are not the time to address ongoing problems in the family or sticky politics at work. Instead, focus on what you enjoy about the individuals who surround you. If that’s hard to do, one strategy is to try viewing them as characters in a book or movie. This can give you the distance you need to remain calm, and perhaps even be somewhat amused.

Sometimes, there are coworkers who touch all your wrong buttons around the office, but are much more relaxed in a social setting. The company party might be a good time to rekindle a common interest you share.

Create an action plan. Armed with perspective and realistic expectations, you can now develop specific plans for the many different areas of your life.

Your first responsibility is to yourself. So, make it a priority to take care of you. If spending time with co-workers is not your idea of fun, then limit party time with them. Arrive late or leave early. Steer clear of those you don’t get along with. If you don’t think there will be repercussions, cite some other commitment that’s important to you and don’t go at all.

The rules for family gatherings are not all that different. You are still the priority. Maintaining good family relations is in your best interest. So, attend the party, but stack the deck in your favor. Knowing what to expect from each person in your family, plan how you want to avoid potential problems. For instance, don’t talk with your bigoted Uncle Bob about immigration issues. Also plan how to respond to any problems should they occur. So, when Mom gives you “helpful” suggestions about how to raise your children, plan to politely change the subject. Again, the goal is to, at the very least, keep the situation calm and positive. With that achieved, you might even dare to enjoy yourself!

If you have experienced any recent major difficulties or loss (i.e. death, romantic break up), you will probably not be in a party mood. Be respectful of yourself and your situation. Rather than pretending to be festive, limit or avoid the parties. However, do not hibernate in the warmth of your bed. It might feel safe at first, but an extended stay will surely make you one grumpy bear. Instead, find positive ways to support yourself. Tell others what you really need and ask for their help.

Find support in friends or relatives. As part of your plan to make it through the parties, reach out to a trusted friend, someone who you can talk honestly with. You can vent to that person, use her as a sounding board, or elicit her help in developing a plan for how to proceed. You might even want to rely on different people for different situations.

Look for a buddy in attending parties. For example, you and your sister could plan to support each other through another difficult night with Dad. Or, you and a coworker could plan to collectively brace yourselves for a work function.

Challenge negative thinking and develop constructive alternatives. Pay attention to how you are thinking about yourself and the upcoming parties. What are the messages you are feeding yourself? Are you remaining hopeful for an enjoyable time? Or, are you sinking into self-doubt and dismal expectations for how the party will go? It is easy to get stuck in a destructive cycle of thinking, particularly when emotions are running high.

To break the cycle, lift yourself up by putting a positive spin on things. For example, think about how nice it will be to have a chance to catch up with a coworker you like. Or, at the very least, remind yourself that you have a plan and can do a good job managing the dreaded event. Consider rewarding yourself afterward. You can meet up with a friend or relax at home with some ice cream and a good movie.

With a little clear thinking, you can bring yourself through any holiday get-together with minimal grimacing. In fact, you might even manage a real smile under that party mask!

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ