Celebration Saboteurs

How To Create Happier Holidays

By Holli Kenley

As the holiday season unfolds, a mixture of emotions begins to form. There is excitement over the gathering together of loved-ones and a growing anticipation of family traditions and meaningful rituals being replayed. There are feelings of hope and promise as individuals, partners, and families embrace their respective beliefs and engage in purposeful practices. But lurking in the background is the memories of past celebration saboteurs and the fear of repeated experiences. 

At the same time, the holiday season also brings with it varying degrees of stress. Although there are many causes of stress, there are two contributors which are more troublesome during the holidays: Expectations and Loss.

Let’s take a look at these two Celebration Saboteurs. More importantly, let’s grab hold of a few tools for making our holidays more enjoyable for everyone.

Celebration Saboteur: Expectations

Expectations are a natural part of who we are. They are an outgrowth of family norms, of dynamics within relationships, and of long-held rituals and traditions. They are important.  However, as families or generational units grow, change, and evolve, clinging to expectations too tightly can cause friction and stress. In addition, when individuals do not express their frustrations over current practices, or they withhold those feelings for fear of disappointing or angering others, feelings of dread and discomfort around the holidays can start to form.

For example, as adult children move away, secure jobs, find partners, and have families of their own, it is often difficult to return to their childhood environments in order to celebrate the holidays. At the same time, older generations may find themselves struggling to let go of hosting family gatherings, exhibiting various forms of resistance towards accommodating the needs of their adult children. Their expectations are entrenched in the thinking, “But this is the way we have done this for thirty years. Why do we have to change?”  Challenging family norms is not easy, but if addressed in appropriate ways it can be stress-reducing for all members involved.

Another example which further illustrates how entrenched expectations can cause hurt or even offend others involves blending together of diverse backgrounds. As new members enter a family unit, they often bring with them their favourite recipes, family of origin traditions, and fun practices. Hosting families often resist changes or additions to their routines, rituals, or recipes. There are times when well-meaning individuals  criticize or judge a different way of doing something as less meaningful or “not as good as the way we do it.” Holding onto customs is important. Doing so without honouring diverse experiences, especially of family, can illicit feelings disappointment and nonacceptance.

Another important stress which emanates from this Celebration Saboteur is holding or carrying unrealistic expectations around unhealthy family members or toxic relations who attend holiday celebrations. This can be a very painful topic to confront or to consider; however, it is important. If past holidays or other events have taught you that unwell individuals are probably going to behave in the same manner, it is critical to lower expectations and adjust mindsets. Unrealistic expectations such as thinking, “He or she will be different this time,” can lead to more anger or disappointment, and further complicate family dynamics. At times, this Saboteur may require that healthy families reassess their holiday practices and their levels of  participation within them.

Remember, when expectations about the holidays are too rigid or unrealistic, they can turn a time of rejoicing into a growing pool of resentment. By implementing healing tools, we can create healthier and happier holiday celebrations.

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Expectations: Three Tools For Reducing Stress

The first tool is quite simple, but it does require a bit of self-reflection or examination. Ask yourself, “Have I been or am I being too rigid in my expectations?”  Be honest. If you are, make an attitude adjustment. Let go of needing to have it one way, or your way, or the right way. Be flexible. Communicate to loved ones and family members that you are going to work on your expectations. Be willing to compromise with others and accommodate their expressed needs and desires.


On the other hand, if you are not being too rigid in your expectations but feel other family members are, set a time to communicate your feelings with them. Give yourself plenty of time in advance of the holidays so that folks can have time to digest the information. If possible, try to come to an arrangement which serves all parties. If  others are not willing to consider alternatives or adjustments, reassess your priorities and set boundaries which will support yourself and your needs.  

For example, if there are stressors or changes that your family is dealing with such as expenses, hardships, travel, and costly gifts, and if you are finding that family rituals and traditions  are not working for you, communicate your needs to members, again with plenty of advance notice. If family responds in a positive manner, great. If your requests are met with resistance, express what you need to do and why. And then, do what is best for you.  Respect your situation and circumstances so that resentment does not build. Most importantly, your holidays will be less stressful.   

The second tool in addressing unrealistic expectations requires a firm commitment to your wellness. If celebrating a holiday with an unhealthy individual will most likely end up in disaster or ugly drama, it is important to take care yourself and your loved ones. It is your responsibility to do so. Although other family members may tolerate toxic behaviours and they may resent you for not “going with the flow,” you know what is good and healthy for you.  If you do decide to attend, have an exit plan in place. Set boundaries around what you will accept and not accept. If your decision is not to attend, communicate your intentions well in advance. Although this is hard work, doing so will free you from anger and disappointment, allowing you to enjoy your holidays in a drama-free environment.

Lastly, the third tool speaks to those who are hosting a holiday celebration. This can be incredibly stressful. Or, it can be one of cooperation and collective participation. If you are hosting, clearly communicate what your expectations are and if there are any changes. Who is going to bring what? How are folks able to help, including the children? If you find yourself complaining about or dreading a certain aspect of hosting, be honest with yourself about it. Let family members know and invite them to help you problem-solve the situation. Most folks are willing to help.  We just need to let them know we need it. Again, make sure you do this with plenty of advance notice, giving others time to re-adjust their expectations and to communicate their needs as well.

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Let’s move on to our next Celebration Saboteur: Loss

Rigid and unrealistic expectations cause anxiety over the holidays. Typically, folks are quite vocal about them; and thus, they grab our attention.  However, the next Celebration Saboteur – loss – is one which is frequently unnoticed or it is camouflaged by the fun and commotion of the holidays. In addition, what makes this Saboteur so complicated and painful is that loss is experienced on uniquely personal levels.  

There are many ways loss can manifest as the holidays approach. For example, memories may surface of loved ones who have passed and whose presence is deeply missed. The seats they filled at the table, the roles they played, and the emptiness left by their larger-than-life personas are all reminders of their absence.  Other kinds of loss include the demise of friendships, fractured and fragmented family relationships, and estrangement from loved ones or former partners. Whether it is with family or friends, relational loss carries with it a host of heavy emotions such as sadness and sorrow. These emotions are amplified over the holidays as folks reminisce or recall more festive times.

And lastly, there is a profound and poignant presence of loss around silent personal wounds, triggered by past familial memories or individuals who perpetrated the harm. Tragically, in many homes today there are individuals who have betrayed their trusted roles within a family. Whether those wounds have been healed or not, and whether the family unit has changed and grown in healthy ways because of the injustices or not, all contribute to the degree of injury and ensuing loss felt by survivors. These losses reside in quiet places, but they are real. They are important.

Remember, although loss is felt personally and privately, it is the collective nature of the holidays which triggers memories, both positive and painful.  

Loss: Let’s examine a few tools for managing this Celebration Saboteur.

First, in dealing with the loss of a family member, it is important for family to communicate their individual desires as well as the family’s wishes in honouring the passing of a loved one. Although this is extremely difficult to do, holding onto private expectations and then being hurt when those are not met intensifies grief and compounds levels of anxiety and depression. If other family members are in a different place in their grief and their needs are different from yours, take care of yourself.  Honour your loved one in ways which are meaningful and purposeful to you. Let go of your expectations of others.

Secondly, if you are a family dealing with estrangement issues, broken relationships, or division within your family, it is important to acknowledge and practice releasing what you cannot change. By letting go of the heaviness of negative emotions which accompany these dynamics, you are freeing yourself from ill-served stress. Well in advance of holiday gatherings, implement and practice one or more of the following exercises in releasing:

  1. Pray, meditate, or embrace routines or rituals which allow for the letting go of past pain. Repeat as often as necessary.
  2. Journal about your feelings regarding the relationship.  Honour your truths and validate your voice. Continue journaling each day until you feel the release has taken hold.
  3. Write a letter to the person/s who is causing or who has caused you pain. Describe how you feel. Get it all out.  Do not mail this letter. Put it away when you are done. After the holidays, reread it. Compare your feelings presently to how you were feeling prior to the holidays. Acknowledge any changes or shifts. Remember, we have every right to feel our highly charged emotions. However, we don’t want to remain stuck in them. Dispose of the letter in ways which are releasing to you.  

Thirdly, the holidays can be reminders of past pain and personal loss.  In this area, there is much to say about self-care and self-protection. It is critical to be aware of your levels of vulnerability by establishing and maintaining boundaries. In “Breaking Through Betrayal: And Recovering The Peace Within 2nd Edition,” * Chapter 9: Boundary Work, offers strategies and exercises for doing so.  

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For now, utilize the following cognitive behavioural exercise if you feel triggered, unsafe, or at risk for re-injury:

  1. Catch the painful or uncomfortable thought, memory, or flashback and identify your feelings (connect them to the trigger).
  2. Stop the thought and contain the feeling.
  3. Calm yourself.  Breathe….slowly.  Inhale and exhale.  If need be, give yourself a short time out.  Leave the room and go to quiet place or  go outside. Relax. Breathe. Honour your feelings and release them. Return when you are ready.
  4. Replace the thought with something positive and healing; and/or redirect your conversation or actions.
  5. Reassert your present reality.  Work on staying in the present, focusing on what is now.  Remind yourself that you are safe and that you are strong.  Continue releasing any residual pain.

In closing, the holidays can indeed be a time of joy if we are willing to do a bit of hard work upfront by tackling Celebration Saboteurs. It requires that we assess and address our expectations, of ourselves and of  others, in timely thoughtful ways. And as the holidays approach, it is critical to take an honest inventory of the losses you may be feeling. Then, tend to them in ways which are purposeful to you and protective of you.

Publisher’s Note: Holli Kenley is an American Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of “ Daughters Betrayed By Their Mothers: Moving from Brokenness to Wholeness” and “Power Down & Parent Up!: Cyber Bullying, Screen Dependence & Raising Tech-Healthy Children”

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