Managing Expectations Around Holiday Interactions By: Sarah Frank Jarvis, LMFT, ATR-BC, CGP

Once again the holiday season is upon us; that wonderful time of year where Starbucks busts out the special wintry cups, overpowering smells of scented candles with names like “gingerbread fantasy” and “pine forest dream” make your eyes water, and every store you walk into is blaring the same mix of cheesy holiday tunes. It’s hit or miss whether daily interactions with strangers will be warm and friendly or charged with pent up stress, urgency, and bitterness. Among the potential difficulties arising from this season is the likelihood of having to engage in formalized family interactions that are loaded with expectations from most or all involved. This can certainly present a challenge to one’s psyche, constitution, and immune system. In these situations it can be tremendously helpful to take some time in advance to set some realistic expectations around managing your part of interactions with especially difficult or triggering people.

One way to begin this process would be to find a person you feel comfortable talking to about personal issues; this can be a friend, a family member, a fellow member of an anonymous support group, a therapist, or a therapy group you are part of. If you can’t find anyone to discuss this with or are doing this on a plane seated next to strangers on your way to see said ‘triggering people’, you can also write or type this out. Start with identifying those you anticipate having difficult interactions with and what about them or your shared history may be contributing to this. 

Next, come up with your ideal way of interacting and responding in these situations. Remember to keep this part about you and your actions/reactions. Unless you have psychic mind control abilities you can’t change how others think, feel, or act, however you can certainly influence other people with the example you set through your own actions. Here are some ideas:

– Think of specific ways you can initiate or participate in interactions that feel more comfortable for you such as not entering into one-on-one conversations, sticking to lighter topics, and responding more generally to questions asked. 

– Identify personal boundaries that are important to set or maintain and with whom.

– Be mindful of alcohol consumption if you feel it leaves you susceptible to negative feelings or regrettable behaviors (that is if you drink at all; if you’re sober then be especially aware of triggers and cravings that could arise, call your sponsor, go to a meeting, etc.).

  Stay mindful of any feelings of defensiveness that come up during social interactions and have some specific tools in mind should you need to use them (such as breathing exercises, personal affirmation, excusing yourself calmly, etc.)

And lastly, after the interaction is over, make sure to process anything that came up for you by talking with your supportive person/people or by journaling about it. Try to focus on what went well in addition to what was difficult or uncomfortable. Doing this last step is important because it will help to reinforce the conscious efforts you made to improve your experience, increase self-understanding, and promote feelings of self-efficacy. 

Wishing you an enjoyable, manageable, and self-affirming holiday season!

Elana Clark-Faler
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