The Holiday Season: Expectation vs. Reality

by Carolyn Moriarty, LCPC


The holiday season is filled with expectations. Fueled by idyllic scenes depicted in movies and social media postings, our imaginations can run wild with ideas of how things should be.  Annoyingly, how things should be is rarely how things actually are. Don’t stress if you feel that things aren’t going right for you this season. Take comfort in the fact that you are not alone and read on for tips on how to cope when your expectations don’t match up to reality.

Expectation: Happily catching up with family and old friends

Reality: Feeling a mounting sense of dread at the thought of having to answer endless questions about your personal life.

How to Cope: Many people experience excessive worry and apprehension about embarrassed or looked down on in social interactions. Social anxiety is difficulty to deal with any time of year, but the never-ending list of social obligations during the holidays can make it seem unbearable. It might be tempting to turn to alcohol to help you get through these events, but there are other ways you can cope. Remember that nobody’s life is perfect and nobody expects yours to be either. Asking people questions about themselves, or finding a neutral topic of discussion, is a good way to shift the attention away from yourself when you start feeling uncomfortable.


Expectation: Attending all the holiday events, putting out all the decorations, baking all the cookies—doing all the things.

Reality: Feeling too exhausted to get out of bed and guiltily thinking “I’ll do it tomorrow”.

How to Cope: Holiday burnout is real. Doing too much at once can leave you feeling physically, emotionally and mentally drained, making it difficult to do anything at all. Remember to practice self-care this time of year. Prioritize what needs to be done and don’t beat yourself up for not doing everything. Challenge yourself to get comfortable saying “I have done what I could. This is good enough”.



Expectation: Finally achieving your New Year’s Resolution of “becoming a better person”

Reality: Starting out strong before slowly slipping into your old ways by February

How to Cope: New Year’s is an opportune time to make changes in your life, whether it be getting rid of a bad habit or adopting a healthy new one. Having lofty resolutions for self-improvement can set us up for disappointment, whether it be because the goals are too unrealistic or because achieving them does not make us as happy as we had expected. For this reason, it is a good idea to pick a small and specific goal and set your expectations by thinking about the challenges and set-backs you may encounter. For example, instead of deciding to “eat healthy” you can resolve to “eat one serving of vegetables a day” and then identify and be mindful of the specific instances that might trigger you to neglect the carrots that are slowly perishing in your refrigerator.


How to manage your expectations:

A surefire way to end up feeling disappointed is not appreciating what we have, or comparing what we have to what we could have. “The grass is always greener” may seem like a cliché, but studies have

shown that people are not very good at accurately predicting how they will they will feel in a certain situation. Many of us, for instance, have had the thought “I will be happy once XYZ happens”.  However, our belief is most likely being colored by our (highly inflated) expectations of the situation. And having these thoughts makes it easy to taint our enjoyment of what is happening in the present. The takeaway: when thwarted expectations are causing disappointment or anger, be mindful of those feelings and use that awareness to focus on the present moment. Practicing mindfulness can help you re-set your own expectations and utilize the necessary coping skills.



Seeking Mental Health Support

If you feel that your anxiety extends beyond typical “holiday stress”, it may be time to speak with a professional. Scheduling an appointment with Chicago Counseling Center may be the first step in making your mental health a priority in the new year. Meet our team to learn more!


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