The 1989 movie, Christmas Vacation, with Chevy Chase is a classic story of set – and dashed – expectations. Clark Griswold is the ultimate optimist, and, as his family reminds him throughout the story, his expectations for most family events run unreasonably high.

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He wants the house to be decorated perfectly – the best on the street. He bought his family a swimming pool for Christmas, although he couldn’t afford the deposit. He wanted a large family gathering on Christmas Day with both sides of the family, although, as his wife notes, “all they do is argue.”

In a classic line, Griswold’s wife says, “You set standards that no family activity can live up to.” And, when it all falls apart and people start to leave, Griswold retorts, “Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We’re all in this together!”

We laugh when watching this movie, but mostly because the Hollywood experiences are so close to our own.

As women, dealing with our own expectations and those of others around Christmas can create a lot of stress and tension. Or, worse yet, we are left with painful memories that take us months to recover from.

Others’ Expectations are Powerful

Family Christmas gatherings are often filled with expectations of what we are to do, how we are to act, and how our children are supposed to engage with family members. We feel these expectations keenly because they target some of our most powerful needs – to belong, to be loved, and to be accepted by others. However, in this light, others’ expectations are more manipulative and controlling than indicators of love and care.

Our Own Expectations are Powerful

Movies and media have not been kind in framing what the Christmas season is all about. Rather than a celebration of spiritual traditions (and, yes, with fun as well), they portray Christmas as day after day of fun, excitement, never-ending laughter, and easy-going relationships. Of course, this is simply not what life is like.

However, many women get caught up in personal expectations for making the Christmas season a mirror image of the movies – fun-filled days where immediate and extended family are together constantly, everyone is happy, and everyone loves it. A real Pinterest-proud experience. The result is extreme stress. We set ourselves up to create something that is unrealistic, and then are left with feelings of disappointment and inadequacy when we can’t pull it off.

The Importance of Being Authentic

I’ve been thinking and writing about authenticity lately, and I think it’s a relevant part of any conversation about Christmas expectations. Much of then tension and stress we feel when we come under others’ expectations is because they are in conflict with who and what we are about. We aren’t able to be authentic, genuine, or true to ourselves. We aren’t acting in ways that are congruent with our genuine thoughts, feelings, and values [1].

But, being true to oneself is not just a nice thing to do. It’s essential to our mental health. People who don’t feel free to be authentic are more prone to experiencing a whole range of negative consequences that affect their wellbeing, including [1-3]:

  • High stress
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Relationship conflict
  • Less satisfaction with their lives
  • Irritability and frustration
  • Less overall wellbeing

On the other hand, people who are authentic show [1-3]:

  • Higher levels of energy and vigor
  • More mental resilience
  • Greater persistence in difficulties
  • Lower stress, anxiety, depression

What Women Want

When you ask women what they most want for themselves and their families during the Christmas season, these are just a few of the responses you will get:

  • Peace and happiness within themselves
  • Authentic relationships (e.g., authentic, honest communication)
  • Love and compassion toward each other

Notice that women’s first responses have nothing to do with activity or bling. They are related to relationships.

3 Strategies for Dealing with Expectations this Christmas

  1. Identify your needs and those of your family. Ask yourself, “At the end of the Christmas vacation, what do I want to be able to say it was like?” If, for example, you want to be able to say that your family relationships were deeper and richer or that you had opportunity to “really connect,” then participating in large extended family events from morning until evening for the better part of a week may not be conducive to meeting those needs.
  2. Be deliberate about what holiday activities you choose to be involved with. Decide ahead of time what family activities would most benefit your family and, most importantly, what commitments are most in line with your needs and those of your family.
  3. Choose to focus on relationships, rather than the bling.

Further reading:

[1] Goldman BM, Kernis, M.H. The role of authenticity in healthy psychological functioning and subjective well-being. Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association 2002;5:2.

[2] Sheldon KM, Ryan, R.M., Rawsthorne, L.J., Ilardi, B. Trait self and true self: Cross-role variation in the Big-Five personality traits and its relations with psychological authenticity and subjective well-being. Journal of personality and social psychology 1997;73:13.

[3] van den Bosch R, Taris, T.W. The authentic worker’s well-being and perfomance: The relationship between authenticity at work, well-being and work outcomes. The Journal of Psychology 2014;148:12.

I’d love to hear from you! Drop a quick comment about how you’ve dealt with expectations during Christmas and – Merry Christmas!

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