September 27, 2023

The Tyranny of the Shoulds

Guest Opinion
By Greg Holmes | Nov. 19, 2022

The holiday season is now upon us: Thanksgiving is already here with Christmas soon to follow. Are you looking forward to celebrating them, or, like many others, are you dreading them?

There’s little disagreement that the holidays can add significant stress to one’s already stressful life. Sources of stress differ for each person, but often reflect the impact of time and financial pressures, the complications of gift giving, and the lack of enthusiasm for going to contentious family gatherings.

A Consumer Reports survey in 2016 on stressors experienced during the holidays found that 57 percent of those surveyed dreaded dealing with crowds and lines, 29 percent found shopping stressful, and approximately one-third were not looking forward to “getting their house in order.” Other stressors included anxiety about having to attend holiday parties (19 percent) and even the pressure of “having to be nice” (13 percent).

That was 2016, and four years later our world changed dramatically with the arrival of COVID-19, which had a profound impact on the way we celebrated the holidays. During the first two years of the pandemic, many people altered their plans in an attempt to avoid contracting and/or spreading the illness. For some, it provided a reason to avoid doing things they didn’t want to do in the first place without feeling guilty.

Which brings us to this important question: How can we best reduce the stress and dread associated with the holidays? One thing I guarantee won’t work: not making any change in how you think or go about the holidays. Doing the same old thing while holding your breath to survive the season is a choice we often make to avoid conflict within ourselves or with others.

Having to be cheery when we’re not feeling it is stressful. We may not be proud of the fact that we’re not in the holiday spirit and even feel guilty for having that thought. However, as Erma Bombeck once wrote, “Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.”

The fact of the matter is that many people, if not most, live and struggle with what the late psychoanalyst Karen Horney described as the “tyranny of the shoulds.” All of us have been told one way or the other how the holidays “should” be, what we “should” buy, and what a happy holiday “should” look like.

The messages of what we “should” do come from many sources, some of which we are painfully aware of and others which fly under the radar of our consciousness. These messages influence how we feel and ultimately what we do. This conflict often creates stress about how we perceive and approach the holidays.

These messages are internalized and create images of what the ideal Thanksgiving or Christmas should be like. Not meeting the high bar of the expectations of ourselves or others can often lead to feelings of disappointment, resentment, and even failure.

A helpful first step in changing how you approach the holidays is to develop a deeper awareness of your thoughts and feelings. You may believe you already know exactly how you feel, but do you fully understand why you feel the way you do? The degree of awareness that we achieve will often depend on our ability to be honest with ourselves.

Honesty can be difficult, but it gives us insight into our thoughts and behaviors. Do we like the holidays? Why or why not? Is there something we could change about how we celebrate them that would make them more meaningful and less stressful?

As we develop this awareness, it’s not surprising to find that the stress of the holidays is difficult, in part, because it is often superimposed on our already stressful lives. How happy or content are we with our lives in general? How much of our life is ruled by the tyranny of the shoulds? How much is determined by what we really want to do, who we really are?

Once we have developed an awareness of the origins and the nature of our stress, there are basically two options that are available. We can either accept the way things are, or we can change how we go about the holidays. Both options have challenges of their own. Acceptance can be hard as it often means letting go of what we really want. True acceptance, on the other hand, is different from acquiescence.

Imagine that during your honest introspection you discover that you are only doing things that others expect from you. Generosity can be a wonderful thing, and thinking about others and how they feel is the opposite of narcissism. However, this only works if you don’t forget yourself in the process. Honoring who you really are is one of the best gifts you can give yourself—not only during the holidays, but any time of the year.

Greg Holmes lives and writes in Traverse City.


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