We all hold stories of what Christmas should be like but these stories might actually be the thing that is hindering your joy.
This blog is about how you and I can create new stories of what we want from this Christmas season and day.
It’s a quick dive into where our stories and expectations for Christmas come from and why these
can cause us disappointment and pain.
I share how I’ve learned to let go of these expectations and how this has changed my experience of the season radically.
Happy Christmas Memories
As a child, my parent’s religious beliefs meant that our Christmas celebration was actually on New Year’s Day. We didn’t have a Christmas tree or decorations and I don’t remember this bothering me, beyond the slight embarrassment of having to explain it to friends.
We’d put Dad’s socks up by the mantelpiece on New Year’s Eve. New Year’s morning was the most exciting morning of the year. My even more excited sister Jo was always up first, she’d run back into our shared bedroom and update us on the contents of our stockings!
Presents were exchanged and much feasting was to be had on New Year’s day. We’d have a three course meal at my Granny’s in her old farm house up the road. My Granny, Aunt and Mum pretty much invented the Bake Off with their attempts to ‘out pudding’ each other. Lots of my older cousins were there and we loved playing chase and hide and seek, running up one set of stairs and down the other.
I don’t remember having massively high expectations of the Christmas season, just lots of very happy memories.
New Expectations & Disappointments
Then at some point I lost my childish naivety and started having expectations about what Christmas ‘should’ be like. Or more specifically what I wanted it to feel like.
I wanted to feel special, magical, to know I loved and was loved. I wanted us as a family to communicate well and I didn’t want to have large moments of boredom. Our family Christmas’ couldn’t live up to these expectations as much as everyone tried.
If I was in a relationship, I’d have high expectations of my partner – I’d want things to be perfect between us. Yet a special day was never going to fix a compatibility issue.
If I was single, I’d pine for a partner and a family of my own. I’d feel inadequate and wonder what was wrong with me.
I’d look at all my friends on Facebook sharing pictures of their happy family, ‘baby’s first Christmas’ etc. All of a sudden my life seemed pretty sad, lonely and well… pretty rubbish.
Christmas came with high expectations – expectations that were met with equally high levels of disappointment.
Why did I have such high expectations?
Facebook is such a mixed blessing for me – it’s been amazing both for my business and for keeping up with friends who don’t live near me.
And it’s a nightmare in terms of comparing myself to others. Especially when others only share the show reel of their life highlights.
Christmas time can be especially bad for this –
“Look at us looking radiant as we eat our perfect meal”,
“Look at the little darlings opening their presents”,
…meanwhile, behind the scenes.. it took about 15 selfies to get that perfect picture and the ‘little darlings’ are probably driving their parents to distraction.
When I have icky feelings from Facebook I try and limit my time on it. I consciously remind myself that “comparison is the death of all joy” and “don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides”. #Shonaclichequeen 2018 update: this is as much of a struggle now as it was 2 years ago – only now I’ve added Instagram into the equation!
The season/ our cultural psyche
Christmas expectations are drip fed to us through adverts, TV, radio, music, our work places. Even a trip to the shops…
There’s an expectation that something special is about to happen. Something we should all be looking forward to.
Me in Supermarket last Friday:
Cashier: Have you finished your Christmas shopping yet?
Me: No. I haven’t started but I’ll do it online tonight.
Cashier: What? You can’t, they won’t come in time.
(Look of genuine horror!)
2018 update: I only now buy gifts for nieces and nephew and for my Dad so it’s even easier.
My close friend, who’s a single mum, shared how she feels guilty because she can’t cook a Christmas dinner with a huge turkey roast as the centre piece of the table like they show on the adverts. She lives in a small flat and there’s no room for the basics, let alone a 15-pound turkey in the middle of the table!
2018 update: She’s let go of that story and her sons now cook the dinner for her!
Hollywood Christmas Happily Ever Afters Don’t Help!
When it comes to our modern day expectations of romantic love, dear old Hollywood has a lot to answer for – and even more so when it comes to the idea of Christmas and love.
Maybe I should go on holiday and hope that Jack Black will come and visit me? Or pay more attention to the single father/ hot widower living down the street, who looks just like Jude Law?
Maybe I should stand out side the door of my unrequited love’s house, play him a tape of children singing Christmas carols. Hold up signs with a “romantic” speech written on them. Don’t say an actual word and hope that Kiera Knightley doesn’t make an appearance! 2018 update: I don’t have an unrequited love (I don’t think i had in 2016 either – unless I have a very bad memory… I think I just made it up to fit in with the story.)
Geek fact: “Happy-endingification” began in the 1930s in response to a time of grinding poverty and uncertainty about the future. Those funding film on both sides of the Atlantic decided that audiences wanted a good dose of escapist fun.
Eighty-six years later many of us still want a good dose of escapist fun and the film industry know this is a recipe that sells – especially at Christmas. There’s nothing wrong with this – as long as we know it’s just that. Real life will always seem a huge let down if we compare it to the big screen!
At some level, as ashamed as I am to admit it, I know that the Hollywood happy endings were part of a false narrative that I was telling myself about Christmas.
Why humans suffer
In my life coaching studies I’ve become fascinated with human suffering. I know this sounds dark and weird but bear with me!
I passionately believe that much of our suffering comes not from circumstances or events but from the stories we tell ourselves about what these mean. This was the theme of my TED Talk a few months ago.
We are the only creature to commit suicide.
Why is this?
Because we are the only creature that can create abstract stories about a past or a future that doesn’t exist.
Story and language are hugely influential in shaping our thoughts and world view.
Suicide is an effort to avoid future suffering.
One of the approaches I study, ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), is based on the assumption that suffering is a normal and unavoidable part of human experience. Furthermore, it assumes that it is actually people’s attempts to control or avoid their own painful experiences that leads to much long-term suffering.
I am working on myself, and in the future I hope to help others, to learn ways to let go of the struggle with pain, to be more mindful, to get clarity on what really matters, and to commit to living a full, vibrant life.
It’s not about eliminating certain parts of one’s experience of life, but rather it’s about learning how to experience life more fully, without as much struggle, and with vitality and commitment.
Practicing this for me means that I accept that my life and my Christmas isn’t going to be perfect. It means at times I may struggle with being single and not being a parent – and in the future I will lose family and friends who I love very much.
It also means I realise how much I already have, who I have and how precious this gift of life is.
It’s a wrap
I entitled this post “Always winter but never Christmas” which you may recognise from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I feel that for some years this title reflected my experience of Christmas due to the stories I was telling myself about what Christmas ‘should’ be like.
At the moment my 25th of December
2016 2018 looks like it will involve:
orand maybe gym with my younger sisteralone (in a good way; younger sister has 2 little ones that make logistics difficult) serving food and washing dishes at homeless people’s Christmas lunch(Hmm I seem to be less charitable this year!) dinner with my older sister and her partner’s familyBring and share dinner with most of my nuclear family
- hiding away in bed with a new novel
I’ve been saving!(I don’t have one yet. Any recommendations?)
This might not be your idea of a good Christmas but that’s okay because it’s just my story and it sounds kind of perfect to me!
What will a Christmas that’s perfect for YOU look like?
Your story will be different but, like me, you may face some struggle this Christmas. The struggle may be about someone’s absence or presence.
Let’s invite our grief as well as our fun selves. Many of us will feel the absence of a loved one as strongly as we felt their presence in years past. It hurts. It’s hard. It’s real.
There’s something important and beautiful about acknowledging and embracing both the joy and the struggle that this season brings.
If we can lose the cultural expectations of Christmas it’s easier to find joy in the little things. Christmas can offer us rare moments of stillness, slowed down-ness in our overly busy and overly structured lives.
Let’s let go of the stories we tell ourselves about what Christmas ‘should’ be like.
Somehow in the act of letting go, something more precious emerges.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” Charles Dickens
I hope you have an amazing Christmas and New Year!!
Thanks so much for making the time to read my blog. I’d be delighted to hear from you if anything in this blog resonated with you. Please drop me a message.
If you are interested in coaching, walking, retreating or workshopping with me find out more here: http://www.shonafitness.co.uk/services/