There’s nothing like getting together with your parents and siblings over the holidays… and then realizing you’re plotting their murders halfway through dinner. Being with family members, especially around the holidays, can be tough for a lot of reasons, but the main reason it’s difficult has to do with your expectations. Today I’m teaching you the three problems you have with your expectations and the one tool you can use to create connection and joy this holiday season (and beyond).
The Expectations that Get You into Trouble
Actor Michael J. Fox once said, “My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance and in inverse proportions to my expectations.” So, what are expectations? An expectation is a belief you have about something that’s going to take place in the future. Basically, you’re playing fortune teller and making predictions based on your past experiences or other information you have. Your expectations sit at the core of any unhappiness you feel (yes, I said it).
Let me give you a very low-stakes example. If you go to a high-end restaurant for dinner and order the $150 steak medium-rare, your expectations will likely be high, meaning you’ll expect the steak to be cooked perfectly and taste incredible. If it doesn’t, you’ll likely be upset. However, if you’re ordering a $9 steak at a local pub, you’re still going to hope your steak is served medium rare, but your expectations of it being perfect and tasting delicious are lower. So, if it came to you well done, you might think, “Well, that’s what I get for ordering a $9 steak in a pub that doesn’t serve good food.” You likely wouldn’t be as upset because, although you had expectations, they weren’t as high. The stakes didn’t feel high for that steak.
In fact, if that $9 steak were cooked well (and tasted OK), you’d be pleasantly surprised and might be pleased with the great deal you were getting. You’d probably tell other people about it and note it as a positive experience, even though you only spent $9, and the steak was just OK.
In relationships, those expectations really become an issue because, like that $150 steak, the stakes (no pun intended?) feel higher when it comes to family and the people we love.
Here’s the thing you’ve got to take in. Your expectations shape and bend your reality because the steak is the steak. It hasn’t changed. It’s your expectations about the steak that make it enjoyable or not.
When you expect that Thanksgiving dinner is going to be a shit show, guess what? It will be. When you predict that your mom will be passive-aggressive at Christmas dinner because you wouldn’t come early to help set up, that’s what you’ll see no matter how your mom acts.
We say in the 12-step rooms, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.”
The simple truth: If you’ve ever been disappointed or frustrated, your expectations were too high. I mean, the dictionary definition of disappointment is feeling sadness or displeasure caused by your hopes or expectations not being met.
How do you change things? First, you have to understand three problems you likely have when it comes to expectations and your relationships.
Problem #1: Your Expectations About What Family and Holidays Mean
You’ve heard people say, “Blood is thicker than water,” “Family is everything,” or “Never forget where you came from.” Family relationships can be especially hard because of all the expectations we have of each other:
- Maybe that has to do with your role as the easy-going sister
- Maybe it’s because you think that being related means you should all get along or hold one another as the highest priority
- Maybe it’s dealing with your parents thinking everyone should be the same because you’re all from the same family
- Perhaps you’re being told that you like things you don’t anymore (“What do you mean you don’t want to watch the game? You love football!” or “Since when do you not like turkey?”)
In the end, our families often don’t give us the space or permission to be who we really are, so we end up feeling misunderstood and not heard or seen. We have all that “should” thinking in our heads:
- Everyone should just be nicer around the holidays!
- I should be appreciated for all the work I’m doing/effort I’m putting in.
- My dad should treat me with more respect.
- My mom should be nicer to my partner.
- My brother should help out more around the holidays.
- We should definitely go see your parents for Christmas; it’s the right thing to do.
- The whole family should be together! It’s Thanksgiving!
Expectations are definitely higher during the holidays because of assumptions about how things are supposed to be or feel.
- Holidays are a time for family to be together (even though this year you’d rather go to Hawaii).
- Holidays are supposed to be fun and full of joy.
- You’ve got to go all out for the holidays (and spend money or time you don’t have).
- Everything needs to be planned out so it’s all perfect.
- I’ve got to invite everyone; it’s the holidays!
- We’re making memories for the kids, so everything has to be BIG!
- We have to keep traditions going.
- You find your language full of “have to” and “should” with little input of how you’re feeling or what you want.
- You’re responsible for others being happy on the holidays (or not feeling lonely).
- You have to cook an elaborate meal that takes days to complete.
Problem #2: You Don’t Realize You’re Creating Your Reality
There are many things you think are facts right now that aren’t. Maybe you just take it for granted that “anyone would think this way” or “any sane person would agree.” Nope. These are actually your expectations, and because you expect something, you’ll usually get it because your expectations create your reality, even though you’ve been thinking you have expectations based on reality! Mind-bending, I know.
This is for three reasons I’ve discussed before:
- Your Confirmation Bias
- Your RAS
- 50 vs. 11 million bits
I go into detail on all three of these areas in my Complete Guide to Effective Communication.
There’s also one new reason I want to discuss now called The Nocebo Effect. The Nocebo Effect is the opposite of the placebo effect. The placebo effect happens when a patient thinks they’re getting a drug to help some condition they have, but what they’re really getting is a sugar pill. They then start to get better because their mind has convinced them that they will.
But there’s also something called the Nocebo Effect, which happens when patients are given a sugar pill but told that it’s a drug that will help their condition but has X and Y side effects. These patients start to exhibit those negative side effect symptoms even though it was only a sugar pill!
John Kelley, Ph.D., deputy director of Harvard Medical School’s Program in Placebo Studies & Therapeutic Encounters says, “Whenever you look at any randomized control trials, it’s surprising how similarly the side-effect profile for the placebo often mirrors the side-effect profile for the active [treatment]… It’s the power of the imagination. If you ask someone to imagine a visual scene in their minds, you can see on an MRI that their occipital lobes — the parts of their brains involved with vision — are activated. If you tell people to imagine doing some physical activity, you’ll see the motor cortex showing activation. Just imagining something is happening is enough to activate those portions of the brain associated with that thought, or worry, or pain.”
And this is you stepping into your parent’s house to celebrate Channukah and thinking it’s going to suck. This is you thinking that the Christmas party at your office is going to be uncomfortable. This is you in so many situations where you’re expecting to be too busy, overwhelmed, or like it’s going to be very hard. You’re convincing yourself of the negative side effects of what you’re about to do, and they come true!
Problem #3: You Expect Others to Respect Your Boundaries
You know I love to talk about boundaries (and my new book about boundaries will be out in early 2023)! The bottom line: you’ve got to know and hold your boundaries if you want to be happy through the holidays. It’s not anyone else’s job to hold your boundaries (I know, I hated learning this too)!
You want to have high standards (your boundaries) but low expectations. Most people have it reversed. They have low standards but high expectations. In other words, most people will accept all kinds of bad behavior from other people (low standards), but then they’re angry and resentful that they’re being treated that way (high expectations). If you want a happy and fulfilled life, you’ve got to identify your standards and stick to them while you balance keeping your expectations low.
So what’s the one tool you can use during the holidays to change those expectations and create joy and connection?
You Can Flip the Script
Maybe you’re late getting to Christmas dinner at your parent’s house, and you’re feeling stressed out. Instead, remind yourself how grateful you are to be celebrating with people who love you, and being late isn’t the end of the world. Burned the turkey? Think of how lucky you are to be able to afford a turkey (and, who really likes turkey anyway?). No matter what the negative or yucky thing is, push yourself to find something positive (or at least neutral) in the person or situation, no matter how small. You want to flip the script.
In fancy, psychological terms, we call this “cognitive reframing.” I did a whole episode about this called “How to Stop Overthinking and Let Things Go that Bother You,” so I’m going to highly suggest you check that out before the holidays get into full swing, but for now, here’s what I mean.
Reframing is taking something that’s said and putting it in a new frame or new way of thinking. As I mentioned earlier, the real problem we have is being so sure we’re “right” about something (“My mother-in-law hates me,” “Everyone’s talking about how terrible I look in this dress,” “I know people are judging how I’m parenting Jack”). We then ascribe all kinds of meaning to what they say, don’t say, or what we assume they think, and we play these negative thoughts on a loop over and over! Worse yet, we decide it’s a fact and find all kinds of “evidence” for our beliefs.
Reframing gets us away from what we’re sure is the truth and, instead, puts the responsibility and focus on us and what we’re thinking and doing rather than the other person and what we believe they’re thinking and doing.
When you look at a situation, person, thought or feeling from a different perspective, it opens your mindset to a new point of view, a new angle on what’s happening so you can think differently about it and learn how to let things go and/or stand up for yourself (aka: hold your boundary) with clarity and love.
Remember that you feel the way you think, so changing your thinking about something will change your feeling about it. That’s how you go from feeling shitty to feeling at peace about something. You can stop letting it bother you and start being in your moments, actively deciding to let something go with love or speak up (from a confident, loving place).
The thoughts you think and the subsequent emotions that you feel are almost always rooted in old, negative patterns that you’ve had since childhood. These ways of thinking and coping likely served you in some way then, but they definitely don’t serve you now.
When you get a new perspective on something by reframing, you can finally change those old patterns, gain control over your thoughts and feelings, and start feeling better! Remember, a belief is just a thought you’ve had over and over again. You can absolutely create new patterns of thought and beliefs that become new, healthy habits.
You’ve heard me say before that life is happening for you, not to you. That’s a quick example of a cognitive reframe. Thinking of problems as challenges is another cognitive reframe.
But let’s get down to some nitty gritty examples and how we can reframe these thoughts and conversations that might come up this holiday season.
The pushy: “When are you two going to give us some grandbabies?”
Reframe: To my mom, having kids means that my husband and I will stay together and start a “real” life. I don’t agree with this, but to her, she’s worried on some level and wants me to be stable and safe because she loves me.” Or “All my mom ever cared about was being a mom and being needed. I think she sees grandkids as a means to being needed again. She’s coming from her own fear of not feeling comfortable in her own skin and needing someone to focus on. This isn’t about me.”
What I could say: “I’m so happy you’re excited for grandkids, mom, and it’s hard for me when you ask about it so often. I promise to let you know when we start thinking about it. In the meantime, I would appreciate you leaving that topic alone as we figure out our timing.
The political: “I still think Trump did a great job!”
Reframe: My uncle and I have very different political views. I don’t need to convince him of anything, and I can allow him to have his thoughts just as I’d like him to allow me to have mine.
What I could say: “I love you Uncle Joe and we both know that this is a topic we disagree on. There are so many things I’d love to chat with you about besides this.” (Then insert new topic). This is actually my favorite way of responding to many things that might come your way.
The shaming: “Are you really going to have a second helping?”
Reframe: My dad worries about my weight and health from his own fear, and I don’t need to be a part of that.” Or “My dad is a narcissist, and sadly, he sees my being heavier as a negative reflection of him, but I don’t need to see it the same way. Asking about my weight or food is his way of showing me that he loves me.”
What you could say: “Dad, I love you and want to have an amazing holiday/memory with you, so I’m going to remind you not to talk about my weight/body/food. There are so many things I’d love to chat with you about, like how great my job is going or how fun the kids are right now.”
The competitive: “You started working out two days a week? That’s great, but that would never be enough for me. I just finished another triathlon.”
Reframe: “My sister clearly has low self-esteem because no one feels the need to put others down so consistently who feels good about themselves. I don’t know if she’s competing for our parent’s love or what, but there’s something damaged there, and I can have compassion for her. What she’s saying is about her, not me.”
What you could say: “It’s so cool that you do those triathlons. Tell me more about how you feel when you’re training/how you decided to do them/what else you might like to try.”
My favorite questions to ask myself to help me reframe are:
- “What can I learn from X?”
- “I wonder what part of this is mine?”
- “What’s my part in how upset I get around my dad?”
- “If I could do one thing differently right now, what would it be?”
In the end, you need to remember this one thing: You can’t control how other family members will act, but you can control how you respond to their actions. In fact, that’s the only thing you can control, your reaction.
I’ll leave you with the words of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”