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saying 'no' for the holidays

What's the best gift you can give yourself this holiday season?

I remember the holidays when I was a kid. My father would labor over giblet gravy for hours. Literally, hours. His complaints would get louder and louder as the gravy seemed to get thinner and thinner. By dinner time, he was disgusted with his attempts at perfect gravy, and I couldn't understand what the big deal was. Then I became a wife and mother. And now I understand how ridiculously significant that gravy becomes during this time of year.

So back to the question: What's the best gift you can give yourself this holiday season? How about permission to say "No".

Conventional wisdom seems to be that the holidays are over-hyped and commercialized. I talk to so many people who feel they can't meet the expectations that society (that means us) puts on us from Thanksgiving to New Year's. So why not deal with that reality and place healthy limits on ourselves, rather than waiting for society to adapt to what most of us feel on the inside.

One of the biggest issues around this time of year has to do with family expectations. There is often genuine fear of how people will react if we don't meet those expectations. "My parents want us to come to their house this year for Christmas, but my wife's family wants us there. It's too much pressure." Often, this affects children, too. "My parents are divorced, and it's my dad's turn to have me, but he lives so far away. I'm really going to miss my mom and our home." Other expectations involve gift-giving, party-going, and money. "My in-laws expect these elaborate gifts, but I just don't make that kind of money," or "I've been invited to three holiday parties this month, but I really don't feel like going to any of them."

I know what these experiences are like and how much anxiety and fatigue they can provoke during this time of year. So I made the decision years ago to set my own limits on my time, energy, and money before others' expectations set them for me.

For starters, decide what activities or events mean the most to you and plan to engage in those. That may include an activity that's very important to a loved one; let that be your "gift" to them to attend or participate.

Make sure you decide how much money you're comfortable spending this time of year and stick to it! Many of my clients come to see me in January distraught over how much they've charged on their credit cards, sometimes just because they felt they "had to" in order to meet someone's expectations.

Don't forget to plan time during the holidays to "gift yourself" with rest and relaxation, whatever that looks like to you. Maybe being around a lot of people stresses you out. Then you need to make sure you limit your activities with others and have plenty of time to be alone to recharge.

Identify the expectations you think others hold you to, and decide if you're willing and able to meet them this year. If you're not, be honest about that. Stand up for yourself. Tell them in a compassionate and respectful way that, this year, you're just not up to it. Remember, you're not saying no in order to hurt someone else; you're saying no to help yourself, which will ultimately be beneficial for others in your life.

Let the holiday season be realistic, but enjoyable, for you this year. Let go of the Norman Rockwell expectations for a perfect, dysfunction-free family around the dinner table. Let go of the dream of stacks and stacks of perfectly wrapped gifts under a Martha Stewart Christmas tree. Forget the gravy. And let someone else off the holiday hook, too.

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