Need to know how to survive the holidays with your relationships, sanity and dignity intact?
Based in wellbeing science and anchored in over a decade of seeing what works for thousands of people we train out in the real world, here are our 12 Rules for Happier Holidays.
Print them out if necessary, and feel free to share them widely – or even privately! Read below to understand why these matter and how you can incorporate them into your own life.
RULE ONE: Learn to say no!
Many of us are over-loaded and tired over the holiday period, but still end up taking on work and attending events we don’t want (or need) to. Stop the self-sabotage by working out how to say no.
Tips for saying no:
- You can say no to the fifth drinks party, a pre-Christmas catch up with people you haven’t seen all year, or some festive craft activity. Stop trying to cram more in.
- We’ve found that starting small – saying no to something relatively inconsequential – can be enlightening, empowering, and ridiculously liberating. Stand by and marvel at how the world doesn’t grind to a halt when you say no, parties go on without you, colleagues shrug their shoulders and ask someone else.
- Soothe your paranoia by reminding yourself that given you’ve never criticised someone for not attending a party, nor will your hosts. Most of the time no one even notices, and if they did know you put your own harried health first, they’d be full of admiration not recrimination.
RULE TWO: Real is better than perfect!
Ah perfectionism. We urge you to say no to it. Not only is it toxic, but studies show it can drive depression, anxiety, shame, and procrastination. Stop trying to be perfect! Believe us, you’ll feel better for it.
Tips for managing perfectionism:
- Lower the bar and replace perfectionism with a healthy dose of self-compassion. Know it’s okay to not return that text immediately, let your teenage kids sleep in late, take some time out from your regular exercise routine.
- When things do go wrong, remind yourself that suffering/struggling is part of life, we all stuff up, and that just makes you human. Pack all the self-sledging, snarking, doubt and recriminations away and work out, what do you need to do to be kind to yourself right now?
- Restricting yourself to what’s actually feasible and reigning in the festive madness doesn’t make you the Grinch, it usually makes you more loveable! No one can connect with a perfect façade. Drop it. Let them see the real you. It really is okay.
- Don’t bake the cake, make your own greeting card paper, or theme the entire house. Stop! Tell people you’re tired and cutting yourself some slack. Who knows – it might be catching, in a good way.
RULE THREE: It’s better to be kind than right.
Pull back from that tetchy discussion, or the blame game of who forgot to buy/send/cook what. So what if you’re actually right?
Ask yourself, what will it gain to shove that point down someone else’s throat? Most likely an ongoing row, festering resentment, and frayed connections, at a time that’s meant to be about love and goodwill.
Take a deep breath, play the long game, and repeat the holiday mantra “it’s better to be kind than right” over and over again.
RULE FOUR: Done is better than good (particularly gift wrapping and gravy making)
No matter how much you care about excellence, sometimes it’s more important to get the job done and out the door so you can sit down, or get onto the next thing.
Identify the tasks that absorb your time (and that deliver little ROI) and work out a viable short cut. Allocate a time-budget to jobs you don’t relish so you don’t squander precious time and energy on things that don’t matter.
If you need motivation to do so, think about, where will you spend the precious time you save? Who could you spend it with? What can you do instead that you really enjoy? We’ll swap stuffing a turkey or perfect wrapping for time on the beach any day.
RULE FIVE: Sometimes you have to hunt the good stuff.
You may create moments of pure bliss or contentment over the holidays. You may also experience stress, frustration and irritation. You don’t have to sink into misery or generalise from a spat. At those times, it’s helpful to remind yourself (and everyone else) of the good stuff. What was the best moment of the day? What felt most worthwhile? Who helped make that happen?
Make sure you have these discussions around the festive tables, it makes a change from the festive blame game. Remind the family of shared good times, the fun you’ve had together. Capture the great moments in pictures or shared words.
Look back over the day for the small nuggets of gold and take every opportunity to savour and repeat stories of the great moments. In psychology, this is called capitalising and it reinforces the memories that will remain with you for years to come.
If you find yourself stuck for small talk, ask them about the best moments of their year. What was your best day? Your funniest moment? The most inspiring thing they heard or read? The best movie/gig/show/book/podcast they discovered?
RULE SIX: Is what you’re doing helping or harming you?
Asking yourself, “is what I’m doing (the way I’m choosing to think or the way I’m choosing to act) helping or harming me in my quest to get through this?”, provides a sense of perspective and builds self-awareness. Use it to work out what’s working and what’s just adding fuel to the not so festive fire.
That fourth glass of bubbles before mid-day, is that helping or harming you in your quest not to bite cousin Jack’s head off? Talking politics with just about anyone? Booking in for three nights when you know you can only tolerate one? Getting take outs instead of slaving over a hot stove? Driving separately so you can escape if/when required?
This fabulous question pulls us out of the mire, time and time again. We love it for its versatility and we know so many of you are using it too, as you’ve been telling us how much it’s helped you in regular correspondence throughout the year!
We can stray very far from the centre of our lives, doing ‘the right thing’, and pleasing other people. This question, from cognitive behavioural science, puts you firmly back in the driver’s seat, reminding you that it’s actually your job to look after you. Even when faced with a horde of rampaging relatives.
RULE SEVEN: Practice the ‘Noticer Pause’ before you respond.
It’s not surprising tensions can rise and people get wound up – and that’s even before anyone has added alcohol to the equation.
The ‘noticer pause’ can save us in holiday situations. When you feel yourself getting wound up, irritated or snarky, practice pausing. Check in on how you’re doing, take a deep breath, and pause to consider if what you are thinking about doing will help or harm the situation. If you need to, walk away. Physically moving rooms is a much underestimated tactic. Heading outside can also provide refuge.
Alternatively, if you find yourself stuck at the Christmas table wanting to rant and rave, here are two tried and tested ways to slow your racing mind (and potentially racing heart) that no one will even notice:
- Box Breathing – breathe in for the count of four, hold your breath for the count of four, breathe out for the count of four, hold your breath for the count of four, repeat four or five times.
- Work your Five Senses – notice 5 things you can see around you, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear (tune grandma out if you can!), 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
Both strategies will get you out of your head and into your body. If all else fails, play your favourite music loud, and dance wildly for a few minutes. See what effect that has on you and your assembled family!
RULE EIGHT: Yours is not the only family that behaves like this (3 days for Families & Fish)
Resist comparing your family to others’ perfect Instagram pictures; in reality, time with extended family is often complex. And far from perfect.
Rather than our daily roles as partners and workers, we’re suddenly spouses, mothers, daughters, sisters, cousins, nieces, neighbours and friends – all at the same time. While you’re an adult in some of these relationships, in others, you may still feel like a fractious teenager, or a hovering mother. Others gathered around the table are also juggling roles (and stuff!) too.
There’s an old saying ‘guests are like fish – even the best ones stink after three days’. It’s not just you that feels like this. Don’t hold yourself to an idealised, unrealistic standard. Give each other some space, apologise where you need to, and move on – literally. We’re all irritating at times.
RULE NINE: Don’t be reckless!
Instead of hurling that brick (metaphorical or not) or grabbing the car keys after too much wine, remember that retiring to bed is always the safer, more graceful option. Don’t let rows risk your or others’ safety.
We know how hard it can be and how our tolerance can wane when continually put to the test, and how tempting it is to say exactly what you think. If you’re speaking out of frustration and anger, chances are it won’t suddenly fix a long-standing irritation.
Remember the ‘noticer pause’, and that it’s your job to look after yourself. If that includes getting yourself some quiet time away from everyone, do it. Know your boundaries and don’t be afraid to put them in place.
RULE TEN: You may miss them when they’re gone!
Remember that time mid-year when you missed friends or family, and sorely wished you could get them together? When you dreamt about a movie-montage-perfect gathering of these people you love and care for? In a couple of months you’ll be able to shake your head and laugh at the behaviour that is grinding your gears right now.
So, don’t be reckless, practice the noticer pause, be kind, and find yourself some space – now! These rules are cumulative – the longer the holiday, the more you may need to use all at once .
RULE ELEVEN: When all else fails, ask ‘what are you hoping for now?’
If, even with your best efforts, it’s all turned to custard and someone’s stormed off, then it’s time for a radical reset.
One particularly effective tool for repairing the holiday shambles is to ask yourself, ‘what are you hoping for now?’ This powerful question (originating from paediatric palliative care) reminds us that, even in a difficult situations, there are multiple ways forward, other things we care about, other things to do.
Ask yourself, what are you hoping for now to identify what really matters and what options are still available to you. If need be, grab a pen and paper and make yourself write these down.
RULE TWELVE: Remember, you’ve got a whole 12 months before you have to do it again.
All over the world people will be muttering to themselves, ‘only once a year’. Hang in there! There will be a whole 12 months before this particular circus rolls around again.
By then you might have learned how to say no or to lower the bar. On the bright side, you’ve got 12 months to hone the skills of self-care and perspective, ready in time for next year!
Write a list now, while it’s fresh, about what you’d do differently over the festive season next year, and place it in your diary (probably some time in August) to remind yourself at a timely juncture – before plans are set in stone.
Focus your attention on what you can control: every January, we both come back from holiday and each buy two wall charts: one dedicated to work and a second one for fun. Just as we plan our work schedule, we also need to get intentional about creating things to look forward to. What makes you feel good, like you’ve had a break and got away from the frantic lives we all lead? Make sure you’ve got something pencilled in for each month ahead. The best years start with good planning in January, not New Year’s resolutions that rarely last the month!
We hope you’ve enjoyed our 12 Rules for Happier Holidays and can see how they might be useful in your own life! As much as we all look forward to a break and time with family and friends, most of us have moments when it’s helpful to have some tools to keep our relationships, sanity and dignity intact; we certainly lean into these pretty heavily at times in our own ‘real not perfect’ lives!
We’ll be printing the below image summary out and sticking it on the fridge where everyone who visits can see it! As well as screenshotting to keep in our phone files for moments we need it on the go. We have loved sharing our work with you all this year and appreciate everyone who follows us and has joined our mission to spread the best of resilience and wellbeing science to the world. We’ll continue our quest to build Collective Resilience in 2023 and beyond.
As we sign off for the year, we wish you all the very best for the holidays – wherever you are, whatever you do. May you find time for rest and recovery. Holidays are not a competition – pace yourself. Be kind to yourself as much as others.
Lucy, Denise and all the team at NZIWR