The napkin sailed across the dinner table. With perfect aim, it landed directly on my dad’s head. My marine corps, Vietnam vet dad. I slowly turned my gaze toward the thrower of the napkin. My father-in-law, my liberal, Vietnam War protesting father-in-law. The room slowed to a crawl then suddenly everyone burst into laughter. The two men on opposite sides of all things politics raised a toast to one another and we commenced with our age-old holiday tradition of the post-dinner napkin fight.
Since the time I’d gotten married, we begged our families to spend Christmas together. They kept saying, “when you have kids, we’ll have a reason to be together for Christmas. We waited and prayed for 7 years before our boys finally arrived and our families finally agreed to one big Christmas gathering. I spent days in the kitchen preparing the perfect menu, decorating the perfect Christmas tree, and creating the perfect Christmas dinner table. It was epic! My parents, my in-laws, and the grandparents all gathered around the dinner table laughing, visiting comfortably, toasting to future Christmas’s, while the boys played on the floor with their new toys.
This was the best family Christmas I ever had.
And it was our last.
The following year, my husband and I filed for divorce and the holidays were never the same again. It’s been 11 years, and I still hate this time of year.
There, I said it. I hate the Holidays. I wish with my whole heart that I didn’t, but I do.
For the past 11 years, I’ve wanted to recreate that beautiful memory for my kids, to carry on familiar traditions we would all love, to bring that same joy and laughter into my home, and to have Christmas presents overflowing under the tree. But, as much as I try, I’m only left with disappointment.
I know I’m not the only one who struggles to get from the beginning of November until January 1st every year. I’ve talked to many of you who feel unusually sad this time of year. You have unmended relationships with family, you’ve lost a loved one in recent years, or you become acutely aware of past triggers and insecurities around your family.
Even if you love this time of year – you can’t get enough of the twinkling lights, and the egg nog, and the Christmas cheer- the holidays can be a source of stress. You still have all the to-do’s and decorating and cooking and baking and preparing, and Christmas parties and multiple holiday pageants at school, and there’s still the presents and wrapping and traditional home-made cinnamon rolls that can’t possibly be prepared ahead of time, so you’re up at 2:00am on Christmas-Eve mixing and kneading and baking. Even after all the loving care, the holidays still bring out the hard stuff in our relationships. Especially this year, conversations around Christmas dinner only serve to stir up tensions and debates about politics or masking or vaccinating.
If I could be so bold as to choose just one word to sum up holiday stress, it would be expectations:
Either our own internal expectations about creating memories, baking the perfect cookies, or finding the perfect present to avoid judgment from judgy family members.
Or the external expectations we take on to make family members happy or keep the peace or uphold long-held family traditions that just CAN’T be forgotten this year despite the time and money it takes to prepare them.
What expectations do you struggle with during the holidays? Take a minute to write them down.
Friends, I’m gonna throw in a little twist. It’s best to prepare your heart.
Expectations are about control. In the past 11 years, I’ve told myself if I could create new memories and traditions and keep the tree stuffed with all the presents, I could erase the hard stuff. I could undo the damage done through the divorce. Maybe I could make my boys forget aren’t a family anymore and that Christmas would never be the same. If I did enough during the holidays, I could reverse the horrible shame I feel for my responsibility for breaking our family apart.
But year after year, I am only left with disappointment. Why? The Christmas experience never met my expectations because I was expecting to control and fix things it’s not in my power to do.
But this is what expectations do to us; we want to recreate the past, heal past hurts, erase hard memories, or repair that which may or may not be fixable on this side of heaven. We hop on Facebook and Instagram and are inundated with images of families doing puzzles together, playing games and baking beautifully decorated cookies but we’re not seeing families that look like ours. We don’t see all the families who lost loved ones to COVID, who’ve struggled with addictions, lost jobs, depressed children who are struggling. You know all too well, your family Christmas would never make a good Insta post.
Friends, we’re gonna have to have a heart-to-heart about control. We need to talk about it because this is the place we get stuck. We think we can control things we can’t, and we think we can’t control the things we can-we’ve gotten it all backward. Control is an important part of this conversation because many of the expectations we create are rooted in control. We are trying to control people, events, memories, and outcomes with our unrealistic expectations.
And as much as we are trying to control the things outside of us, the one thing we have control over, we don’t claim it. We don’t even take responsibility for it, we blame other people and hand our feelings right over and say things like, “she makes me so mad, or you made me sad.”
Truth: Only you have control over your thoughts, feelings, and actions. You have full control and full responsibility.
What exactly does it look and feel like to take control of your thoughts, feelings, and actions?
We all have three centers of intelligence, they are your:
Head – thoughts, planning, and productive reasoning
Heart – emotions, emotional relating, empathy, compassion
Body/Gut – actions, reactions, passivity, gut knowing, and our need for control.
Everyone on planet earth has all three centers of intelligence. They are where we process information and spit out a response, determining our behavior. Everyone uses them with varying degrees of effectiveness and consistency. Some process information first their head or heart or gut. Some ignore one over another. Ultimately, the goal is to identify each one and use all three to make wiser decisions.
Before we can move on, it’s really important to put this information about control into practice. I’m going to ask you to stop here to do an exercise designed to help you get a sense of your territory – the place where you end and other people begin. It’s an opportunity to become aware of your individual-ness; your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Close your eyes. Sit quietly for a moment, and get a sense of your head, heart and body. Sit in your own body, feel your feet on the ground, your body in your chair, and say to yourself, right now I’m aware of what I’m thinking, how I’m feeling, and what’s happening in my body.
How did that feel?
Let’s use the holidays as an example of how you use your head, heart, and body instincts in a specific situation.
Your head might be formulating; to-do lists, planning menus, scheduling events.
Your heart might be feeling; joy, disappointment, anxious anticipation, overwhelm, impending judgment, feelings of wanting to make people happy or keep them from being upset.
Your body might be; wanting to take control, acting on the to-do lists to avoid hard things or feelings, reactive to other people’s responses, passive, inactive, tired or energized.
This is has been my experience post-divorce and the triggers that let me know I’m letting expectations control things I can’t control:
My head; goes blank, nothing, no ideas, no to-do list, I’m out of ideas
My heart; feels disappointment, sadness, loneliness, guilt, and I often feel I just want to make my boys happy, I don’t want them to feel sad or let down by the holidays.
My body; becomes passive, doesn’t even want to try to do anything for the holidays, is weary from unmet expectations but also desperately wants to control Christmas to make the hurt go away.
These are all triggers I’ve learned to identify as expectations that are trying to control me.
Now you give it a try, do an all systems check now. Examine your head, heart, and body for triggers that you are allowing expectations to control you.
Don’t judge your thoughts, feelings or actions, just identify your triggers. Write them down, acknowledge them, welcome them with open arms, give them a hug.
Tell me about your experience with this exercise in the comments.
Not long after my husband moved out, I was desperate to not feel alone and abandoned. I picked up the book Captivating by Stasi Eldredge. Stasi writes (I’m really paraphrasing here), “Jesus will never abandon you or reject you. He will guide you and protect you.” In my entire being, I knew the words she wrote about Jesus were true. I laid the book down and I began crying, I mean ugly-cried, snot and everything dripping down my face, weeping. I’d always believed in Jesus, but never really allowed myself to give my head, heart and body fully to him.
At that moment, I released myself into complete surrender.
Close your hands into a clenched fist, hold it tightly. Can you see your knuckles turning white? It takes tension and pressure to remain in this position, doesn’t it? Nothing can get out but nothing new can get in. There’s no room for new ideas or experiences. This is what it feels like when you are trying to control things you can’t.
Now slowly release your hands and hold them open, palm up. You are letting go of tension, ready to receive, being open to new experiences and ideas. This is surrender.
What does it feel like to you?
Surrender is a full head, heart, and body experience:
Head: You can surrender the length of your to-do list, how you manage your schedules and planning. You can surrender your expectations.
Heart: You can surrender your need to put on a happy face and receive permission to grieve what was lost. Weep and release it to God. Your surrender opens up the space to receive his love.
Body: You can surrender how you feel about your inability to control if others choose to be disappointed because they have different expectations. You can surrender the activities you attend or don’t attend, the traditions you choose to do this year.
To surrender and be open to what God has for you this Christmas season with an open mind, heart, and hands allows you to experience yourself as a woman so filled with the Holy Spirit that she offers grace where there would normally be inflexibility,
she offers love where there would normally be a disappointment,
she offers forgiveness where there would normally be resentment.
How does that feel?
My friend, you cannot control how other people respond to your choices, your efforts, your gifts, or anything else you do or don’t do. You cannot control how other people feel about the holidays, if they love Jesus or if they choose to surrender to him. If they are going to stop judging or be kind or unkind.
But mostly my friends, you cannot recreate the past, repair that which may or may not be fixable on this side of heaven. You can’t bring back lost loved ones, or heal family members struggling with addictions, restore lost jobs, undepress depressed and struggling children.
But know this, when you surrender, you invite Jesus to be in charge; He can redeem the past, He can repair that which feels unfixable on this side of heaven, He can heal broken hearts from lost loved ones, He can heal family members struggling with addictions, restore lost jobs, and undepress depressed and struggling children.
You may not have control, but Jesus does.
My boys may have grown up with different kinds of Christmas’s than what I dreamed for them, but I know Jesus was there, for every single one – even the ones I tried to control, especially the ones I tried to control. He loves us that much. I could have saved myself 11 years of heartaches if I’d surrendered my need to control the uncontrollable, grieved what I’d lost, and opened myself to new experiences God had for us.
I’d like to invite you to choose a moment of surrender at the beginning of each day.
In your head: Repeat this scripture like a holy mantra, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. Visualize it in your mind and repeat to yourself when you have triggery thoughts.
In your heart: place one hand on your heart, and rejoice in your moment of surrender with gladness and gratitude. Breath in deeply and receive God’s overwhelming love.
With your body: Lift your other hand, open it wide in worship to God.