If there is one word that sums up Christmas, it is expectation. It is one of those times of the year when our expectation almost never meets the reality of the day itself.
Me, I am rather ambivalent about Christmas. My childhood memories are of many rubbish Christmasses, with some that were OK, and a few that were good.
These experiences set my expectation, and until recently the run up to Christmas involved me being generally grumpy, followed by relief that it was all over, along with the realisation that it wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be.
Christmas is a yearly trial of how to manage our expectations, and some experiences like a bereavement can make Christmas a very difficult time.
One of my experiences helping people who have been bereaved, is that Christmas is usually viewed with dread. Very often however the actual event is not as bad as the person imagined. And this is a very common experience.
Why do we often get things so wrong?
We might say "I'm looking forward to Christmas," but when Christmas actually arrives we spend several hours stuck in a traffic jam, getting to our destination tired and irritable, after having to manage bored and frustrated children. Whoever is cooking dinner spends the morning looking stressed, and after being cooped up in one house for 2 days, we're glad to be going home again.
One reason we can get it so wrong is because of how emotions work. Our feelings are firmly rooted in the now, they have no idea of past or future.
When we think about Christmas, we conjure up an image of Christmas. This might be people sat round a table, making the Christmas tree, sitting together watching TV, playing a game together, or laughing over a family joke. Our emotional reaction is to these images. As far as our feelings are concerned this is happening right now. When I got grumpy about Christmas, I wasn't getting grumpy about the Christmas to come, I was getting grumpy about the Christmas I had chosen to remember.
For someone who has been bereaved, the image they often have is of the empty place. Their feelings of sadness, and missing the person is happening in response to the image - this is how they feel as if they were sat right now in that scene. When we have strong feelings about something this will tend to blot out other thoughts and feelings.
Emotions are a valuing system
Emotions are an essential part of how we make value judgements. They tell us what is important, and the stronger the feeling we have about something, the more important it is to us.
Equally, if we have very little reaction to something, then it is usually unimportant. We are not predicting the future when we conjure up an image of people round a table, or an empty space, we are re-creating an image of what is important to us.
Understanding that what we are experiencing is a wish or a fear, and not something that will happen is key to managing expectations. My grumpiness is not telling me how the upcoming Christmas will be, rather it is trying to prepare me so I can avoid one particular Christmas I had when I was a child
What is really important about Christmas>
A few years ago, I was running a discussion group for people with a learning disability, and the focus of this one session was Christmas. I brought in some magazines, and we looked at the adverts. The group noticed the message seemed to be that Christmas was about saving money on food and presents.
They decided what was important to the advertisers was selling people things, and they were dissatisfied with this, so we looked at what the group felt was important to them.
What ultimately emerged surprised me. People in the group talked about spending time with family and friends. Some said quite simply, "I go home for Christmas", and others elaborated on who they would see, and how they would talk to each other.
No one mentioned food or presents. I was curious about this absence, so I brought up the subject of presents. What people talked about was buying presents, receiving them wasn't mentioned. People went into detail about who helped them make the list, went shopping with them, and how they decided what to buy for the people important in their lives.
I was still curious, so I asked them about getting presents. People agreed that they liked getting presents, but the way they talked about receiving them it seemed to me that there was something more going on than just liking them.
There was some message being conveyed in receiving presents. One member of the group summed it up when she said "When I open my presents, it means they were thinking about me, about what I like."
For the people in this group what was important about Christmas was connection to people they cared about. This connection happened not only when they were together, the giving and receiving of presents also allowed this connection to happen when they were apart.
To arrive at what was really important about Christmas for the people in the group took an hour. It transformed not only the group's understanding of Christmas, it also changed mine.
How to make better decisions?
The way that we manage expectations is by planning. Planning always starts with working out what is important to us, just like the discussion group.
In fact just by thinking about what was important led people to start planning. It automatically led into conversations about how they were going to get home, who they wanted to go shopping with, how they were going to decide what to buy.
The more time we spend considering what is important, the better and more complete our eventual plan will be. We also make better plans when we involve other people. This happened in the discussion group where there was advice giving, and comparing how different people did things.
It is important to always keep in mind that a plan is never fixed, it is always evolving. Things change, the unexpected can happen, however if it does we already know what is important to us, and can adjust our plan.
Returning to the theme of bereavement, knowing that we are feeling a sense of loss at the image we have of an empty place can help us plan. It might be that we want to somehow fill some of that empty space. We might do this by laying their place at the table as though they were still here, pulling their cracker for them, or marking some ritual that was important to them. We might also decide that the hole is so big and Christmas is going to be so different that Christmas itself needs to be different. And it can also be anything in between.
The tendency when thinking about expectations is to think about them as something that must happen. The statement, "Christmas won't be Christmas if we don't have turkey" is an example of this kind of thinking.
An expectation is not something that must happen, an expectation is something we want to happen. We might want turkey, but we certainly don't have to cancel Christmas if the shops all sell out of turkey. I
f we spend time thinking about the importance of having turkey, like the discussion group spent time thinking about presents, we may find that what is important about turkey, is what it represents. This might be a feeling of family tradition and continuity, a sense of permanence.
Likewise, a plan is not something which will happen, rather it is a way of thinking about how to best use the resources at your disposal to help you achieve what you want to happen.
All plans are uncertain. Until you try out a plan, you can never know for sure how well it will work. In the event that the shops really do sell out of turkey, you might decide to have goose instead, on the basis that this was a Victorian Christmas tradition, but until you all sit down to a roast goose, you won't know how well your plan will work.
A very important stage in any plan is evaluating it. You will often find that you will do this quite naturally. In the somewhat artificial example I have used, after you ate the goose, the conversation would then in all likelihood turn to how easy it was to cook, whether you liked it or not, and how it compared to the turkey you had last year. This process of evaluation enables us to adjust our plan for next time.
With the madness of the Christmas rush on us or about to be on us, I would like to send my good wishes to everyone where ever you may find yourself over this holiday.
Title photo by LayHwa Chew