The holidays are on top of us and along with the pretty lights, gifts, delicious food and sense of wonder we all enjoy, come the feelings of obligation that many of us experience regarding family, friends, co-workers, charitable giving and countless other social norms.
You don’t really want to go to that neighborhood party, but…
Uncle George is so obnoxious, but…
Your budget has no room for that many gifts, but…
Another drink is the last thing you want right now, but…
You genuinely don’t want a second helping, but…
I’m sure you had no problem completing those sentences. I’m equally sure that those ‘but’s’ were based on one version or another of the expectations that are laid on us by others – most of whom claim to love us and have our best interests at heart.
Regardless of the specifics or sources of the expectations, the ‘should’s’ that dictate so much of our behavior can be a huge source of anxiety and self-doubt. The gap between your focus on a healthy lifestyle and the pressure you’re feeling to drink too much at the office party is the anxiety you feel. The bigger the gap, the greater the anxiety.
Of course, if we dive a little deeper, it’s easy to see that the tension is actually between our desire for the healthy lifestyle and our desire for the good opinion of others. What will they think of me if I don’t attend the party? What will my mother say if I cut way back on my gift buying this year? We start to question our own judgment and wonder if we’re somehow weird or stupid.
Our early training by parents, teachers, coaches and others in authority established a limiting set of beliefs and self-doubts that still get in the way of our growth today. We’ve been buried under an avalanche of “sensible’s,” “should’s,” “ought to’s” and “you’d better’s” that told us, repeatedly, that our deepest and most precious desires were somehow wrong, misguided or stupid.
The most heinous crime you can commit on yourself is to live an inauthentic life. To live a life that someone else has told you that you should. Mokokoma Mokhonoana is a mystic, philosopher, yogi, and social critic from South Africa. He writes that “plants are more courageous than almost all human beings: An orange tree would rather die than produce lemons, whereas, instead of dying, the average person would rather be someone they are not.”
So how can you control the ‘shoulding’ in your life this holiday season?
Start by being aware of when it’s happening. Set a little part of your brain aside to serve as your third-party observer and ask it to send up a flare when you find yourself being pressured to do something that’s against your better judgment or that you simply don’t want to do.
When the flare goes up, take a moment and analyze the tension. Try to dissect its exact source. Is it an old habit that’s trying to resurface? An unhealthy desire to please others? Knowing the precise source of your anxiety is a huge step towards controlling and even overcoming it.
Next, take control of the ‘should.’ Recognize it for what it is and decide how much of it you will give in to. Perhaps you’ll decide to go to the party, but only stay a short while. Or maybe you agree to a second helping of pie, but insist on a very small piece. If they force a huge piece on you, eat two bites and leave the rest. If you choose to participate in gift-giving, recognize that maintaining your own fiscal health is far more important than keeping up appearances for others. Look for creative, low-cost options or give a single gift instead of multiple.
As your confidence grows you’ll find that resisting or even ignoring the ‘shoulds’ altogether gets easier. By limiting the control that those external ‘shoulds’ hold over you, you let yourself and others know that your desires and preferences are valid and worthy of respect.
As you insist on respecting your own desires and preferences, extend the same courtesy to others. It’s surprising how often we, too, participate in the ‘shoulding’ of others, often without even realizing it. Cut the other person some slack. Let them observe (or not observe) the holidays in the way they choose.
As Thoreau wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”