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December 29, 2021

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Prepare for a ‘good enough’ holiday season

Just when we thought we were emerging from the pandemic, the Omicron variant has landed another punch, knocking us down as we head into the hectic holiday season with the threat of restrictions and cancelled celebrations for a second consecutive year.

The constant seesawing between lockdowns and reopening may be making many of us feel ambivalent and out of synch, heaping a large dose of uncertainty on top of our last-minute shopping and to-do lists.

The clue here is to stop thinking of the holiday as “the landmark” — a destination full of moments of relief — but rather to acknowledge that even through the holidays we are all still at sea, caught up in the emotional and social turmoil of the crisis.

In essence, try to aim for a “good enough” break. Here are some ways you can counter some of the “perfect holiday” expectations and strike a better balance:

Allow yourself time to grieve

Holidays are for joy. Indeed, but contrary to idyllic expectations, the holidays can serve as both an occasion for cathartic joy and for cathartic grief.

Last winter, with the COVID-19 pandemic in full force, many of us cancelled or scaled back festivities, keeping celebrations with friends and family small or virtual. For some the slower pace worked well. For others it meant grieving the lost social interactions.

Many of us may be feeling the same thing. As social psychologist and expert on the behavioral science of power Amy Cuddy points out, our brains and bodies are simply fatigued, and even bored of recalibrating to the new circumstances, and for many of us it’s simply too much to bear.

Share your feelings

Holidays are for harmony. Nevertheless, harmony should not be thrown like a wet blanket over legitimate concerns and emotional reactions.

Psychologically, the omicron setback has placed us in a state of regression, recovery and collective aftershock. When our bodies are hit by a virus, our immune system unleashes an attack. It puts up a good fight. In medicine, this is called a “cytokine storm,” a poetic term for a potentially deadly condition where the immune system goes rogue.

See what throws you off balance

Holidays are for indulgence. But one often overlooked indulgence is to face some inner demons.

When training officers at the Royal Danish Defence Academy in Battle Psychology we used to spend a lot of time confronting their inner demons and Achilles heals. Because — in a high-pressure situation or when captured behind enemy lines — those are the triggers that will knock you off balance and expose you to danger.

So, think about what usually gets on your nerves during the holidays and expect this to be activated under pressure. Anticipate how you can avoid this. Maybe it’s a particular family member, or a particular theme or discussion that triggers you. Decide whether it really matters, and if you want to confront this or if it can wait until after the holidays when tensions and pressure have lowered.

Holidays are for perfection. Though probably not this particular holiday. This one should just be good enough.

Seek out your own sanctuary

Holidays are for togetherness. However, excessive togetherness can be suffocating, even to the born-and-bred extrovert. In military units there is a saying: “We all have a breaking point” — that goes for holiday togetherness too.

With all the pressure of the holidays, it can be hard and feel wrong to take out, to slow down and to unwind. As pointed out by my colleagues at IMD, you are actually less likely to take time to rest and reflect when under mounting pressure.

The future benefits of taking a break right now cannot compete with the immediate payoff of yet another activity right now — a cognitive bias called hyperbolic discounting. Over time you may forfeit not just your health and well-being but any opportunity to reorient your approach. But even in the pace of the holiday program, you always have more time than you think.

You decide how to spend your time. Sometimes a break can be as simple as closing the door for two minutes to ground yourself in the present. So, allow yourself to focus on at least one daily activity that gives you pure joy and energy and remember to allow others space for theirs. Sometimes those rituals are the first we give up under pressure. We consider them a luxury and not a necessity. Just when we need it the most, we stop doing it.

Give the work back to others

Holidays are for generosity. But the most important gift you can give may feel a bit stingy.

Many of us are used to being leaders or figures of authority at home as well. Ronald Heifetz at Harvard Kennedy School, has a term that really makes sense during the holidays: “giving the work back to the people.”

He notes that some people have a habit of placing their own problems and challenges on other people’s plates and asking for a solution.

If you are generous person by nature this, could be one of your core challenges this holiday. Giving the work back is hard. Especially if you feel that you are the one doing the work best.

The author is a clinical psychologist who specializes in organizational psychology. The views are her own. Copyright: IMD.


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