It’s the holiday season and many of us find ourselves simultaneously excited and apprehensive about spending time with family. Navigating the emotional stress brought on by complex family dynamics and expectations is rarely easy.
We want the holidays to be fun, happy, and we want to share magical moments with the ones we love, yet many of us wake up in January with an emotional hangover. When it comes to family, the unconscious conditioned patterns run deep in our bodies. It seems like no matter how good our intentions are going into the season, emotions run high and we end up saying or doing something we didn’t mean and later regret. And it all happens so fast, it feels like we didn’t get a chance to choose to do things differently. Sound familiar?
Here’s something to think about this holiday season: there are two kinds of happiness. The first I call “externally referenced happiness”. This happiness is ephemeral, transient, and relies on outcomes and expectations; we depend on the external world to provide it for us. The second kind is the “internally referenced happiness”. It is the one that lasts and lives deep inside of us. It is permanently available within and it is our choice to connect with it or not.
If we follow any unhappiness back to its root, it will always end up being a need or a desire that hasn’t been met. When the fulfillment of a need depends on someone other than us, expectations are born. And with expectations comes disappointment.
Expectations are those “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” that run on a loop in our heads, seemingly without our consent. They come from the conditioned beliefs we have about the world and how things should be. Many of them were acquired at a young age and have become an integral part of our inner dialogue and are the root of much of our thoughts, words, and actions. They are based in things being good or bad, right or wrong. They are especially acute during the holiday season because of familial relationships and the multiple, often divergent, traditions.
Here is the difference between expectations and intentions: expectations rely on others and intentions rely on you. Expectations are rigid, while intentions are flexible. Expectations imply judgements about yourself and others. Intentions imply a mind open to possibilities.
If you hold an expectation in your mind, it usually comes with a scenario and a story based on past experiences. And if it doesn’t unfold just so, you will be disappointed and prone to repeating the same situation in the future. In contrast, as you hold your intention clear in your heart, your mind will have an expanded filter and will see all the opportunities to manifest your intentions.
Our families and communities work together to set expectations and sustain the myths of holiday traditions. We are all accomplices. This year, let’s break the patterns of self-sabotage and remorse and experience the holidays on our own terms.
The following is a brief exercise that you can do to become aware of your expectations and arrive at a place where you can choose differently this time around.
Step one: To reflect on your expectations, you need first to get them out of your head and into plain sight. When we try to figure out emotional issues from within our own minds, we get discouraged very quickly. Our ego is really good at identifying with those beliefs and taking things personally. Getting them out on paper will give you the chance to become the observer of what is really happening. Take a blank piece of paper and write down in detail a stressful situation that happened once upon a holiday season--a situation you wish to transcend this year. Be honest with yourself and describe in great detail what happened: thoughts, actions, feelings, and outcomes. No one will read this, so be vulnerable and go deep into the emotional aspects of it. Trust me, just that first step will be cathartic.
Step 2: Put your paper aside and pick it back up later in the day or the next day. As you re-read it, circle the expectations/beliefs/desires that pop out at you. On a separate piece of paper, make a list of the “shoulds”, “shouldn’ts.” For example: he shouldn’t drink so much, I should be more patient with her, she shouldn’t talk to me like that, he should be more kind with her.
Step 3: Reflect on your list. Your first impression might be that each and every item on your list is a well-founded and a normal expectation. And they might well be. But the reality is that even well-meant and reasonable expectations can set us up for disappointment because we tend to form an idea on how things should unfold, how it will look and feel. Opportunities for true joy and love are all around but we often can’t see them because of our single point focus on how things should be.
Step 4: The yoga tradition teaches us about the power of setting our intentions, and the importance in detaching from the outcomes. Rewrite your list and change the language from “should” and “shouldn’t” to “I want.” This will empower you with your desire and intention, detached from other people’s behaviours or attitudes, taking ownership of your own needs. For example: I want kindness in my relationship with my father or I want to be more patient with my sister. It’s up to you! Feel your desired feeling and intention in your heart and let that be your guide.
Step 5: Let go of your expectations. Now that you are clear on your intentions, don’t worry about “how” they will manifest or plan out the way they will happen. Expectations take the fun out of experiencing something new.
You may wish to invite certain family members to experiment with this exercise as well. In the end, we all want to love and be loved, but it takes courage and vulnerability to be the first to change. By letting go of expectations, we also let go of self-sabotage. We create space for greater depth and authenticity in our relationships, allowing our most important wishes to be fulfilled.
I wish you a heart filled with peace and a deepened connection with your soul this holiday season xo ❄️💙