Six Tips For Avoiding Holiday Burnout
Overachievers and people pleasers, this is your early warning to lower your impossibly high standards and keep them low until this JOYOUS (ugh) season is over!
Poppies (1950) by Georgia O’Keeffe
The holidays are an intense time for overachievers and people pleasers. Because there are just so many infinite ways of screwing everything up!
I have fifty different events and tasks trapped inside my skull this morning, competing for my attention. I need to buy stocking stuffers, vacuum my house, shop for groceries, map out activities for my kids, coordinate many of these activities with my extended family, and make that holiday card that I swore I would send out this year, no matter what. I also need to bake a bunch of stuff, buy candy for gingerbread houses, and learn how to play this new board game I bought for the kids — you know, the one that requires a master’s degree in Heavy Tabletop Gaming just to get started?
The word “heavy” here means “very difficult to learn” but it also alludes to the fact that these games tend to incite heavy emotional responses from the ambivalent players you’ve recruited to play with you. Likewise, they call board games “tabletop games” now so that you don’t notice how bored you are quite as often. Moreover, many of these games no longer include a board. Instead, there are vast armies of expensive miniature pieces that signify weird things like “the oxygen levels on Mars” or “a grizzly bear living in the frosty Canadian wilderness” or “a painting purchased by a 17th century cobbler-woman — one she most certainly cannot afford.”
Here’s what I can’t afford right now: A BAD ATTITUDE. Sluggishness. Sourness about certain incommunicative family members. This means I need to be in peak holiday condition. I need to exercise every day and sleep soundly for eight hours every night. I need music playing in the kitchen while I cook. And I need everyone around me to BEHAVE the way I am behaving.
Not possible! Which is why, more than anything else, I need to bite my tongue. Less words! No debating! Not allowed! My job is to absolutely refuse the temptation to bicker with the four volatile, fragile humans in my house. Some of them are fragile because they’re in puberty. Others are fragile because they’re being asked to run to the grocery store to buy additional items for dinner at the last minute. Still others are fragile because they live 3,000 miles away most of the time — far far away from these all-too-familiar temperamental freaks, so blessedly far away that tangling verbally with said freaks has a funny way of kicking up long-buried resentments.
Which brings us to my Six Helpful Tips For Avoiding Holiday Burnout!
Remember what the humans around you are up against. Think through their pressures and challenges: This one is worried about college. This one is worried about overcooking the turkey. This one has been making pierogi on her feet for four hours straight. Even if someone’s challenge amounts to “has a lot of self-hatred that tends to get aimed at others right before it’s time to sit down for dinner”? Think about that and consider how it feels for a person, to be so ruled by their shame that they tend to lash out in family settings.* (*= any description resembling persons living or dead is purely coincidental)
Remember what you’re up against. Just making that list about everything inside my brain right now helped me a little bit, because I woke up feeling great this morning and I’ve slowly been losing my grip ever since — for reasons that were unclear to me until just now! So take stock of your stressors today, before the chaos of the holidays begins. Personally, I like to trick myself into believing that I’m just relaxing for the next two weeks while my kids are out of school. But the truth is, I am in the air traffic control tower, eyes wide open, trying to help HOLIDAY JOY (ugh!) get off the ground while preventing MAJOR HOLIDAY COLLISIONS (oof!) from exploding in front of my eyeballs. It’s just not that easy! Sure, it’s amazing to be aiming for joy right now. But it’s tricky. It is tricky to rock a rhyme that’s right on time, joy-wise!
Expect — and savor — the inevitable calamities ahead. High-strung people pleasers like to believe that they can prevent extra-large holiday mishaps from occurring through sheer force of will and attention to detail. This is simply not the case. Holidays that include celebrating with other flawed humans (most do!) will always include clashes, mistakes, casual slights, under-salting, overcooking, and other big-time screw ups. Don’t even aim for perfect. Don’t aim for great. Just do your best! And remind yourself, when things get weird or tense or sloppy, when you feel tired or chippy or unnerved, that THIS IS INEVITABLE and no one is to blame. Bite your tongue and shrug it off. Try to laugh about it if you can. Lean way into the utter chaos. Don’t overthink the small stuff. I mean, it’s the holidays. You gotta keep it moving, girl.* [*= My kids call everyone of all genders “girl” now, so unfortunately, so do I. Apologies in advance!) Which brings us to number four…
Keep it moving, girl. Keep it light and keep it rolling. Do NOT settle right into your most bitter, resentful, ancient-history-mulling state of mind the second you arrive at your parents’ or aunt’s or second cousin’s or lifelong friend’s house for the holidays. Remember that you are not, in fact, a professional historian who loves to study archaic vestiges of contempt or pour over transcripts of reckless verbiage dating back a whole decade. Yes, I will give you permission to collect exactly one (1) tasty anecdote around the theme “My Family Is Much More Fucked Up Than You May Have Realized!” But you can only share this tale with your very closest friends once this mad season is over. (Okay, fine, I will permit you two (2) emergency phone calls to friends while on holiday break, ideally while you’re out running errands or taking a bracing run through the icy woods, just to get a breather from that overheated house full of overheated people.) But please don’t walk around memorizing stupid remarks, noting self-centered behaviors, or marveling at colorful meltdowns. Always keep your heart moving in the direction of more compassion, more understanding, an expansive, forgiving state of mind. If you feel pushed to the brink, try to imagine that everyone around you is pushed to the brink the same way you are. And then tread lightly — and softly, and quickly! Like a cat! KEEP IT MOVING, KITTY!
Exert your boundaries without explanation or fanfare. Here’s a nice trick that I’ve picked up in the past few years: If someone starts talking in a way that causes my emotional state to start to break up like a plane mid-flight, I try to send an emergency signal to my brain that reminds me: I don’t have to debate. I don’t have to make a point. I don’t have to explain myself. I can simply smile and say nothing. Always remember, you can step away, go for a walk, run an errand, call a friend (see above), drop and do five push ups. Do anything you need to do, but most of all: RESIST THE URGE TO SPELL IT OUT. This is a common pitfall for the people pleaser: Explaining things you don’t need to explain. Making sure everyone understands and knows that your intentions were pure. Girl. Let it go. Let the world remain confused forever. Most people don’t want explaining, anyway. They just want you to relax and enjoy yourself. Which brings us to number six.
Relax and enjoy yourself. Sinking into a nice, inert egg-noggy fog is the reason for the season. Don’t forget that! This means you need to narrow down your holiday goals significantly. Limit yourself to one (hopefully relaxing!) goal per day if you can. Examples: Ask your mom some questions about her life. Sit outside and stare at the trees for an hour. Make your kid teach you how to play a video game they love. Make some bread for your friends. Stuff like that. Let everything else fall by the wayside and focus on one thing that seems important, that strengthens a relationship, that feels good.
My goal today is to learn how to play a heavy tabletop game with my older daughter. We’ll both be earning a quick master’s degree over the course of the next few hours, so we’re going to run out and get some tea with boba first, just so we’re all sugared up and ready to go.
No, you’re right, I agree, this plan is NOT healthy — no, not healthy at all! The sugar and the heavy tabletop play are both ill-advised, when it boils right down to it. But that’s okay. It’s the holidays, and this is our one goal for the day. We will expect delays, anticipate collisions, and welcome chaos. That’s what this joyous (hurray!) season is all about.
Thanks for reading Ask Polly, girl! I wrote an essay about going to Starbucks with my kids that was in the Sunday New York Times yesterday - go check it out! Here’s another (free!) essay I wrote, about how the world just gets stupider and stupider by the minute. After you read those, consider buying my book Foreverland, which is full of similar essays, for someone you love. Send your holiday-themed letters to askpolly at protonmail.com.
This is helpful for an expat Californian (and fellow high strung people pleaser) spending the annual Christmas with Brits who's go-to expression of dysfunction are various forms of passive aggression. Mostly older generation. My partner and his siblings (and myself) are trying to be the cycle breakers. I will definitely repeat "Let the world remain confused forever" to myself this week! Thanks Heather!
There's also the favorite chestnut "Bless your heart" for when someone starts something. I've taken to saying "Thank you for your feedback", and leave it be.
As a people pleaser and over explainer, this list is perfect. Thank you.