Dealing with holiday expectations

The holidays – a certain set of them, anyway – are nearly upon us. If you celebrate American Thanksgiving, that’s right around the corner.

For many people, the holidays are full of meaning and significance, tradition and nostalgia. For a lot of folks, celebrating holidays in particular way means that All Is Right and Good in the World. Not celebrating them in a particular way, at a particular place, with particular people in attendance, and with particular food on the table, can seem like a catastrophic event.

And this may mean that other people expect us to do certain things. (It may also mean that we expect other people to do particular things, but that’s another story.) And we may care very much about these people, and feel obligated to meet their expectations of us… even if we don’t want to do the things our loved ones expect us to do.

This can be mighty unpleasant. Thinking you HAVE to do things you really don’t want to do can be excruciating at any time of the year, but for a lot of people, the holidays offer a particularly intense, sustained series of opportunities to feel obligated to fulfil other people’s hopes and expectations.

Before I go any further, I’d like to make it absolutely clear that I think there are plenty of good reasons for doing things we don’t really want to do – sometimes. Humans are interdependent creatures; norms of reciprocity make the world go ‘round. Life involves give and take. Generosity as well as receptivity. Flexibility and consideration of others. And sometimes that means doing stuff that we aren’t especially excited to do, for the sake of contributing to our families and communities and for keeping the wheel of collective life spinning.


There is a difference between making conscious, deliberate decisions to do things you’re not particularly thrilled to do, and thinking that you have no choice but to do things – maybe particular things, or maybe ALL of the things - you really don’t want to do.

You always have a choice. Even when you think you don’t.

Here’s an example. It may sound extreme, since as I’m posting this, Thanksgiving is literally a week away, but stay with me.

Let’s say you agreed to host Thanksgiving dinner at your house, even though you really didn’t want to do it. As the date approaches, you’re feeling more and more apprehensive about the event. You wish you’d never issued the invitation, and you wish you could find a magic button you could press to call the whole thing off.

Here’s the thing. You COULD call the whole thing off. No magic button required. You COULD inform your would-be guests that something has come up, and you will not be hosting Thanksgiving at your home, after all. If you really want to do that, I have news for you: you can.

Would people react to this decision? Probably. Given the timing, it’s entirely possible that some of your invitees would be surprised, and some might be upset by the change of plans. Some might be VERY upset. Some might choose to communicate their feelings to you. And this could be uncomfortable for you.

But that does not mean you literally could not call the whole thing off.

I’m not suggesting you SHOULD cancel your Thanksgiving plans right now if you’re in a situation that’s anything like this hypothetical example. There are other ways of dealing with a situation you’re dreading, as I’ll discuss below. But I am trying to illustrate a very, very, VERY important point: every choice you make or action you take has consequences. Inaction and indecision have consequences, too.

So often, when we say we don’t have a choice about something, what we really mean is that we don’t want to deal with the consequences we imagine would result from our choice. But that isn’t the same thing as not having a choice.

It is perfectly okay to make a choice that is based upon a desire to avoid a particular set of consequences! There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. To continue with our example of cancelling Thanksgiving dinner at the last minute, hosting an event that you don’t want to host might seem like a better option for you than calling it off at this point. Fair enough.

It’s also important to know that your actions aren’t the only thing you have choices about. You also have choices about how you choose to perceive any situation or circumstance.

That may not sound like a big deal, but it is.

The way you think about your life creates your experience of your life. And, on a smaller scale, the way you think about any single event creates your experience of that event. The way you think about the holidays creates your experience of the holidays. The way you think about Thanksgiving will create your experience of Thanksgiving.

And you can change your thinking about any event, or any aspect of your life, any time you want.

One way to do that is to get really clear on why you’re choosing to do the things you’re going to do.

So, if you’re supposed to host a big Thanksgiving gathering next week, and you’re filled with panic and dread, and wishing you could call the whole thing off, remember that you could do so! Technically, that option is available to you.

But if you choose not to exercise that option, this is your job: get really, really clear on the reasons why you ARE choosing to host the meal. Make these reasons as positive as possible. And emphasize your own agency in your reasons to the greatest extent possible.

Here’s what I mean by that:

Telling yourself, “I can’t cancel the plan now because everyone will be mad at me”

a) reinforces the notion that you don’t have a choice (“I can’t”)

b) presumes you know the future (sure, people MIGHT get mad, but you can’t know that with certainty now), and

c) suggests that other people’s possible future reactions constrain your actions in the present. Which they don’t.

In contrast, telling yourself, “I’m choosing to stick with the plan to host this event because it’s important to me that my kids see their extended family,” or “I’m choosing to do this because many of these people have hosted me in their homes before and I want to reciprocate,” gives you some of your power back.

So get clear on your “why.” Why are you choosing to do the thing, whatever it is, even though you’re not 100% excited about doing it? Maybe you have one reason, maybe you have a few. Get clear on your why, and make it your point of focus.

How do you know if you’ve found a good – or good enough – “why”? If thinking about your “why” makes you feel better, even if only a little bit better, then you’ve hit the jackpot. The point isn’t necessarily to go from feeling terrible to feeling fabulous. The goal is to improve the way you feel by an acceptable increment.

But then again, you just might go from feeling terrible to feeling fabulous.

Once you’ve decided what you’re doing and are clear on why you’re doing it, look for concrete ways to make the situation better or easier. Look for ways that you can enlist others to support you, and commit to supporting yourself.

For example, if you are hosting a huge holiday get-together, can you delegate some of the work that’s involved? If you’ve already delegated some of it, can you delegate MORE? Can you enlist a helper, or another helper, or MANY more helpers? There’s no room for excuses here, by the way. Help is available, but it may not come to you unless you seek it out. Do not assume that people would have offered to help if they wanted to. (Try not to assume anything else, either.) Ask for what you need. Don’t expect people to guess what you’re thinking.

Figure out how can you take better care of yourself, going into the event (or the whole holiday season). Sometimes we tell ourselves we’re too busy or too broke or too ______ (whatever) to take care of our own needs, but that too is a choice. Remember: the only person who can truly take care of you is you. And your relationship with yourself is your primary human relationship. It’s the foundation upon which all of your other relationships are based. So even – especially– when other people’s expectations of you seem especially pressing, remember that you have the right and the responsibility to take care of yourself first.

Recognizing and honoring your power to make choices is a big part of that. So choose to take care of yourself. If you need a reason why, here’s a good one: you’ll be a lot better prepared to participate in things you aren’t enthusiastic about doing with good humor. And that will make the experience(s) a LOT more pleasant for you – and for everyone around you.

If you’re having trouble dealing with expectations and obligations, I can help. I’m offering a holiday sale on my coaching services through December 15 - $499 for 4 sessions, $749 for 6 sessions, and $998 for 8 sessions. Schedule a free consultation with me today to see if working with me is a good fit for your needs!

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Hi, I’m Dr. Marie Murphy. I’m a relationship coach with a Ph.D. in the sociology of sexuality. I help men having affairs decide what’s truly right for them. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to deal with having an affair. I’m not going to shove a bunch of prescriptive advice down your throat, or tell you what you SHOULD do or HAVE to do.

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