It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. It’s that time of year when we have more parties, social gatherings, big meals with family, presents, beautiful music, all celebrated in our best attire. It can also be the most emotionally stressful of times as well. How does that happen?
What produces stress? Stress can be created by a difference between reality, and our mentally projected version of reality, or a mentally projected version of what reality “should be.” This mentally projected version of reality is what I like to call “Virtual Reality.” When our Virtual Reality expectations don’t match with real life, we feel uncomfortable tension emotionally. We can call that feeling stress. But it doesn’t stop there.
We then have the impulse to feel better. This is perfectly natural and a good thing. Except the way that we go about trying to “fix” things or make changes can make things worse. The assumed solution to changing this feeling is to make reality fit our mental virtual reality. We try to change people and everything in our life assuming it will make us feel better. Our thoughts focus on “making every issue perfect” and worrying about what might fail to meet our mental virtual reality. We work extra hard to control those variables of people, food, decorations, lighting, timing, music, parking, and even other peoples emotions to make things “just right.” However, “just right” is really a reference to what our belief system has defined as “just right.” And all of this is to satisfy that made up world of a belief system in our imagination.
Even if we are successful at making things fit our virtual picture we are likely to end up exhausted from the work and worry. We didn’t have a very enjoyable time. Our experience of the event was largely an experience of stress and worry in our mind and hard work in the real world. We stressed and willed things to turn out just like planned but ended up not enjoying them that much. The only satisfaction is in the mission of the virtual reality accomplished but no enjoyment in the moment. More likely though we didn’t make holiday event fit our virtual formula of “perfect” and react with disappointment, self judgment at failure, or even anger.
Sometimes the tension and worry we feel and why we work so hard to control things is because we want so desperately to avoid the painful emotional reaction our mind will have if expectations are not met.
There is another solution to all this holiday stress. We don’t have to stress and work hard to control all the variables and make all people, events, decorations, music, food, and conversation fit your mind’s imagined script of “just right.” The other option is to be aware of your beliefs that make up the virtual reality version and do some mental stretching. Make your expectation beliefs flexible so they fit closer to reality. You might do this from the start. Or if something happens during the execution phase of the plan (your plane is delayed due to weather) you adjust your expectation beliefs right then. With some practice you will find that it is much easier to change the scripted expectations in your virtual reality than it is to change events and people.
There is nothing wrong with trying to make life and events what you want them to be. That’s not a problem. The problem is when we automatically follow this agenda that we fail to be aware of what we can not change. Being aware of the virtual reality desires and consciously modifying them when needed gives us a way to reduce and even eliminate the stress of the holiday season. It’s also how you can lower your stress all year round.
One of the hidden beliefs behind stress is that we can control all things, all things. We might intellectually know that we can’t control everything. We might remind our selves that we can’t, but underneath the thought we still believe that we can. It is a false belief that adds to our stress and results in controlling behavior even when we intellectually “know” better. Intellectual ideas and thoughts of rationality don’t change emotional beliefs.
Telling our self, “Oh I should just relax because I know that I can’t control everything,” is not an effective antidote to stress. It can help, but probably won’t fully dissolve the tension and feelings of stress. In some cases it can actually add to the stress problem.
The thought, “I should just relax and enjoy what is going on,” can actually add stress. How could a helpful reminder actually cause more stress? This added stress is caused the same way that celebrating the holidays causes stress. In the virtual reality of our mind we create an image of how we should be relaxed and enjoying things. But that virtual version of our self doesn’t match with our real self. Our real self is still stressed, worried, and maybe frantic. There is a disparity between our stressed self and our imagined self that should be relaxed. The difference between our real self and virtual relaxed self sets up another layer of tension. We are not what the virtual story our mind says we should be and that induces more emotional stress.
We may have the intellectual thought about being relaxed, but ideas aren’t usually enough to change beliefs driving our emotions and behaviors.
Actual relaxing would entail taking a deep breath, feeling it, putting attention on where your muscles are tight in your body and relaxing them, observing the chatter in your mind and laughing at it, taking a moment to notice the beauty and the people around you etc. This would be actually relaxing. But telling your self to do it and doing it are two different things. I suggest relaxing in those moments of stress, don’t just tell your self to do it. If you find your self telling your self to relax, then please actually do some of these things.
Our Reactions: “ You’ve Ruined Christmas”
Planning is good, helpful, and even necessary to get things done. The desire and effort to make things beautiful and enjoyable are to be commended. But what happens when decorations, events, people, or the stuffing doesn’t come out just right? We react with disappointment, frustration, sadness or anger? These emotional reactions are clues that our belief system has a virtual reality version different from reality.
With the myriad of events going on this month, something is going to get overlooked, be out of budget, or there just won’t be time for it. The person responsible for the stuffing might use the wrong sausage (yes a little spicy sausage makes it amazing) or the wrong apples, or no apples at all. Maybe somebody got apple pie instead of your favorite pumpkin, or the turkey is a little dry. In our mind the most important element of the meal didn’t get met. The first, and sometimes the only interpretation from the belief system is, “the stuffing (or fill in your own dish) was ruined. Maybe with all the expectations of our virtual reality about every detail we’ve built up a big reservoir of emotional stress. Perhaps with so many things not getting met we are filled with disappointment, frustration or anger. We build up a reservoir of emotion and not it is under pressure. That emotion wants to vent out. It doesn’t feel good to us to keep it under pressure. It sees the disappointment with the stuffing as the opportunity and the reservoir of emotion bursts. Our thoughts and comments about the stuffing exaggerate to “Now the whole meal is ruined”. With enough emotion we can even feel that “Christmas is ruined.”
At that point we aren’t really experiencing the Holiday. What we are feeling and experiencing is our own emotions. Those emotions are there largely as a result of the expectations in our mind not getting met. Those expectations in the virtual reality of our belief system are something that we are responsible for, and that we can change. It’s not that the meal was wrong, it is that the meal was “wrong” according to the virtual version in our mind of what was “right.” At that moment you might not be able to change the stuffing, the pie, the turkey, or what someone said, but you can change the belief in your mind, and that will change how you emotionally experience your Holiday. Changing your beliefs is not only a way to avoid the stress in the preparation phase, but to avoid the emotional reactions in the execution phase.
Maybe you won’t be completely successful at your attempt to have a stress- free holiday this year. But with some guidance from the Self Mastery course, and some practice, perhaps you will make some changes and be on the path to making every holiday a happy one.
One other thing that will help with Holiday Stress
Nobody else has your script of the Perfect Holiday. Your child might have a big story (read virtual reality version) of what will make Christmas perfect. For him or her it might be a particular present they want. You sister’s preferred recipe for stuffing doesn’t include sausage. (Hard to believe but it is possible. Maybe she is vegetarian.) For her, putting sausage in the stuffing ruins the dish. She doesn’t eat turkey so the stuffing is the meal and now the meal is ruined. She has a lot of her virtual reality expectations not getting met and her stress disappointment, sadness, and anger is building.
In your script of the perfect holiday, your odd Uncle or grandpa doesn’t tell the same story that you hate every year. In reality, he does tell that story. He loves telling that story. He can’t wait for the holiday meal so he can tell that story again. The point here is that everyone has developed expectations about this time of year. The person next to you has expectations in the virtual reality of their mind about how people and things should be, and how they shouldn’t be. And I’m willing to bet that their version is different than yours. Each of your versions will be different. If you try to impose your will and make everything perfect to your version, you might just be “ruining their Christmas.”
Maybe this holiday season the solution to a happier, stress free holiday is a spirit of giving. Perhaps this year we give up some of your expectations. Specifically virtual reality expectation in the mind that cause us to stress and then react when things don’t go as expected. The first step in this path to happiness is to be aware of what your expectations are.
By giving up things in your belief system you can let someone else have it their way. This is a simple way to help share some joy. Some people distort this to mean that they are giving in. In reality you are using the opportunity to free your self from the limiting beliefs that cause you stress and unhappiness. So in truth, you are giving your self the opportunity to experience greater freedom and happiness. It’s a gift that serves your happiness, and those around you. Freedom from the limiting beliefs that cause you emotional stress and unhappiness is a great gift to give your self this holiday season. And any other season as well.
I wish Many Blessings to You, your family, and friends this year and next. May you experience the emotional feeling of happiness, love, and joy every day of your life.
Gary van Warmerdam
PS. As a reminder of the many blessings you have, you might take the time and listen to session 1 of the Free Self Mastery series on Gratitude.