It’s here. One of my least favorite times of the year as a single person. The “holiday season.” My daughter was playing Christmas music weeks before Halloween, because she “just loves that time of year.” (She must have inherited that from her dad.)
Thanksgiving bugs me for a few reasons, but one of the most glaring is all of the expectations that come along with it. Whether they’re internally or externally driven, these expectations come in the form of “shoulds.” I should do this. I shouldn’t do that. As a licensed therapist and certified coach, I not only experience it myself, but I also hear it from clients. We should be grateful for [fill in the blank], which implies if we’re not grateful, there’s something wrong with us. At Thanksgiving dinner, we have to go around and say what we’re grateful for, and you’d better not say the same thing you did last year. Talk about pressure and expectations! You know what “shoulding” does to us? It eats away at our happiness.
So with Thanksgiving upon us, I think it’s a good time to discuss some alternatives for all of us who are stuck in the “shoulds.”
How Shoulding on Ourselves Eats Away at Our Happiness
Shoulding inherently sets up some artificial expectation that you’ve already been unable to meet, leaving you feeling like you’ve failed, which feels bad. Feeling bad isn’t very motivating for behavior or behavior change. In fact, research shows feeling bad is fertilizer for avoidance behaviors which can breed worry, anxiety and sadness.
When we’re thinking of the shoulds, our focus is internal — on thoughts and feelings. We lose sight of the world around us, on things grounded in our five-sense awareness — what we can actually see, hear, smell, touch and taste. Any time we spend more time in our heads, we’re left more vulnerable to worry and anxiety.
Common Thanksgiving Stressors for Parents
- The picky eater
Of my three children, I have two picky eaters. When they were younger, Thanksgiving used to be so stressful when family members (or other random people) would lob the same comments and questions year after year. They’d say things like, “You know…in my day, we just made our kids clean their plate, and we didn’t have these issues.” or “Did you cater to their pickiness as a baby?”
What? But I struggled with whether I should push them to try new foods or let them choose. Should I feed them before we go? Should I let them make something else? Should I listen to this person and force them to eat? Am I a terrible mother?
That’s a lot of shoulds.
Here’s where I landed: for a picky eater, Thanksgiving and all its new foods and pressures to eat is even more stressful for the child than it is for the parent. (See how my shoulds kept the focus on ME and not my children?) This is not the time to expand their palette. This is a time to learn (and perhaps practice) getting through uncomfortable situations, because being with family (chosen or nuclear) is what matters.
- Splitting time between homes
This is particularly relevant for divorced parents where kids will be splitting time. I’ve heard lots of parents express so much guilt about their situation, saying things like “my children shouldn’t have to do this,” and “I should’ve been able to be a better partner, so this wouldn’t have happened.”
It’s OK to want things to be different, but — and this is crucial — it’s essential to recognize what is. Spending time trying to change, fight or demand that things be different is likely going to cause suffering. I heard a great quote on my favorite podcast, The One You Feed, when David Richo said this about resisting the present: “..it’s like you’re not sitting in the saddle in the direction the horse is going. Saying yes to reality is sitting in the saddle in the direction the horse is going.”
With that in mind, give yourself permission to feel how you feel and be realistic and flexible about your new reality. For example, do you need to have your Thanksgiving dinner on another day? At another time?
Do you find yourself with too many houses to visit in one day? Maybe you only have one place to go, but that can seem like too much when all you really want to do is stay home and relax for a change. For those of you with family in from out of town, there’s the pressure of “I should see this person“ or “The kids should spend time with their out-of-town cousins.” Here the shoulds are around showing up to everything, which is tough to do with children. Every parent knows the exhausted-child meltdown.
Think about what’s important to you around the event, and let that guide your behavior. If seeing that loved one truly is important, then maybe it’s a matter of rearranging schedules or letting your partner (or babysitter) stay home with the kids so you can go. If FOMO — the fear of missing out — is your motivator, you may want to rethink your participation. In this case, giving yourself permission to stay back may be challenging AND what you need (versus what you think you should do). Staying off social media can help and so can thinking about how you can engage in something that’s meaningful to you and your family.
Can you Ditch the Should for Good?
I often feel like a broken record, because I say this often, but here is where getting better at noticing what we’re noticing is useful. Become aware when you’re shoulding on yourself, because you can’t shift your shoulds if you’re not first aware of them. It sounds like an obvious statement, but some of these habits are so ingrained, you need to focus on catching yourself in the act. Then you can take action to move away from them.
- Change the verb. What verb can you use instead of should? Prefer? Would like?
- Stop judging your feelings. Give yourself permission to feel however you feel. It doesn’t mean we need to act upon every whim, but all feelings are valid.
- Stop judging your thoughts. Same idea. We cannot always control our thoughts.
When we stop with the should, we start with the wants. What do you want to do? It’ll set you up for greater success — and increase your overall happiness. One final reminder: changing behaviors can be uncomfortable and difficult, but so worth it.