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My client is a mom of three under seven – a big job on top of her big job. As we coached, she was surrounded by piles of outgrown clothes and toys, the detritus of a seasonal decluttering.

“And now,” she announced incredulously, “we have to do presents!”

I was supposed to be helping her. But when she said that, all I could think was, “Yeah. Presents are a problem. This holiday is stressful.”

It isn’t that I don’t enjoy Christmas. It’s that I feel bullied by it. It’s a similar feeling to what I’ve experienced at Disney: coercive cheer. Smile, dammit. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s the happiest place on earth.

Oh, yeah?

I’m just a little contrary, I guess. If it’s popular, I probably don’t like it. I never watched Friends, for example. I live in a place where college football is a religion, and I don’t like sports.

I’m fine with those petits rebellions, but I want to like Christmas, and I wanted to help my client.

Here’s what we did, and it helped us both! If you also find the holidays stressful and want to turn that frown upside down, read on.

Holiday Triage

To rehabilitate your holidays, begin by identifying where it hurts. Rather than settling for a general condemnation, get curious about the real sources of your discomfort:

  • What are you afraid of?
  • When exactly do you feel uncomfortable?
  • What emotions do you feel?

My client’s pain was in her protest cry, “And now we have to do presents!”

  • Now.
  • Have to.
  • Do presents.

Really? Question it. One of the nice things about being the grown-up is you get to make the rules!

When I answered these questions for myself later, these thoughts were the source of my stress:

  • I have to.
  • I will disappoint you.
  • I spend recklessly.
  • I don’t have time for this.

Obligation, perfectionism, incompetence, scarcity: my own Four Horsemen. These concepts underwrite all of my stress.

Holiday Healing

Now that you’ve identified where it hurts, you can start healing it. What do you want instead of the pain? Specifically, what do you want to feel emotionally and physically?

Rather than stress and annoyance, my client wanted to feel relaxed and connected during the holiday. She quickly realized that would be a bigger gift to her children – one that would last all their lives – than anything that came in a box. She decided that each child would get one big, wrapped gift, but otherwise they would prioritize experiences, like baking cookies together and dancing to Christmas music as a family.

As for me, I want to feel giddy anticipation. When was the last time I felt that? It was the Christmas I was eight years old.

My parents had a Christmas gift formula: pajamas, socks-and-underwear, one outfit, one big matching present for my twin brother and me, and stockings bulging with candy.

Though the 10-speed bikes and the boom boxes we received different years were exciting and gave us so many fun memories, I loved and looked forward to each of these gifts! There was something so tender to me about imagining my parents planning what to give us, shopping for it, and wrapping up the gifts late into the night. I knew I was loved, but this made me feel treasured.

Seeing that even socks and underwear made me feel treasured at eight years old turns around all my thinking about the holiday:

  • I have to becomes I get to.
  • I will disappoint you becomes I may delight you.
  • I spend recklessly becomes I give generously.
  • I don’t have time for this becomes Yes, you do, Silly McScrooge!

Now we are both looking forward to the holidays. My client is no longer allowing herself to be distracted by the piles but is charting her own course for connection and relaxation through the holidays. I discovered that I had been a rebel without a clue, being bullied not by a holiday but by my own thinking. When I changed my thinking, I found my sense of giddy anticipation.

How about you? What if you could design your holiday exactly as you want it? What would it feel like? What would be in it?

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