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Purpose

Preparing for a “good enough” pandemic holiday

Published 17 December 2021 in Purpose • 8 min read

Even in normal times, the holiday season can be overwhelming. With the Omicron variant threatening to snatch away all festive cheer, here’s how to manage the tension. 

 

Just when we thought we were emerging from the pandemic, the Omicron variant has landed another punch, knocking us down as we head into the hectic holiday season with the threat of restrictions and cancelled celebrations for a second consecutive year.

The constant seesawing between lockdowns and reopening may be making many of us feel ambivalent and out of synch, heaping a large dose of uncertainty on top of our last-minute shopping and to-do lists.

Thinking about 2022 and our gradual reopening makes me feel like I am wet and cold in a boat far offshore, squinting through the haze trying to make out a familiar landmark that convinces me that we are headed in the right direction and getting closer to land,” wrote Dr. Clifford Hudis, Chief Executive at the American Society of Clinical Oncology in a recent newsletter to his organization. “I don’t feel confident in naming a date for the reopening, but I do think we are sailing in the right direction.

The clue here is to stop thinking of the holiday as “the landmark” – a destination full of moments of relief – but rather to acknowledge that even through the holidays we are all still at sea, caught up in the emotional and social turmoil of the crisis.

In essence, try to aim for a “good enough” break. Here are some ways you can counter some of the “perfect holiday” expectations and strike a better balance:

Allow yourself time to grieve 

Holidays are for joy. Indeed, but contrary to idyllic expectations, the holidays can serve as both an occasion for cathartic joy and for cathartic grief.

Last winter, with the COVID-19 pandemic in full force, many of us cancelled or scaled back festivities, keeping celebrations with friends and family small or virtual. For some the slower pace worked well. For others it meant grieving the lost social interactions. While we usually consider grief to be losses that truly matter – the loss of a loved one, a job that really mattered to you, or other lifechanging events – it’s commonplace to feel moments of sadness and grief over the lost days, learnings and social interactions.

Many of us may be feeling the same thing. As social psychologist and expert on the behavioral science of power Amy Cuddy points out our brains and bodies are simply fatigued, and even bored of recalibrating to the new circumstances, and for many of us it’s simply too much to bear. American author, professor and podcast host Brené Brown describes how she vacillates “between anxiety and depression, like just coming out of my skin, but also just wanting to go back to sleep.” And organizational psychologist Adam Grant calls our state of mind right now the Boring Apocalypse. He makes the valid point that our fear response and normal impulses are weakened – we are all feeling a bit numb.

Feeling exhausted, bored or grieving what you have lost should not be shameful or covered by putting on a brave face for your family and friends. Instead, allow for those little brackets of sadness and remembrance for things lost in the pandemic.

Share your highs and lows with family and friends 

Holidays are for harmony. Nevertheless, harmony should not be thrown like a wet blanket over legitimate concerns and emotional reactions.

Psychologically, the omicron setback has placed us in a state of regression, recovery and collective aftershock. When our bodies are hit by a virus, our immune system unleashes an attack. It puts up a good fight. In medicine, this is called a “cytokine storm”, a poetic term for a potentially deadly condition where the immune system goes rogue.

The psychological equivalent of a ‘cytokine storm’ is the emotional melt-down that comes in the form of energy drops, sudden bursts of confusion or diffuse depression-like bouts. When we go through crisis after crisis, lockdowns and uncertainty and constant pressure, our entire mental system can go completely off the rails. Some days you might feel powerful and excited – other days sad or even depressed. It can feel like stepping into the sunlight after being in a dark room.

But the more fundamental psychological part is that we are all still trying to negotiate and come to terms with ‘the new order’ of our lives: What should be changed? What should return to how it was before? And people also ask themselves fundamental questions: Where do I fit in all of this? What changes do I want to make in my work and personal life?

These existential questions are a major cause of what is now referred to as The Great Resignation – people all over the world changing jobs at a much higher rate than usual.

There’s is a good chance that all these mixed emotions will affect our holiday this year. Instead of suppressing these important questions, they should be part of the conversation. Make it a habit for everyone to share a bit about their year during gatherings. What were your highs and lows? That way we get to ventilate some of the trickier feelings that otherwise tend to be projected into others.

Examine what throws you off balance

Holidays are for indulgence. But one often overlooked indulgence is to face some inner demons.

When training officers at the Royal Danish Defence Academy in Battle Psychology we used to spend a lot of time confronting their inner demons and Achilles heals. Because – in a high-pressure situation or when captured behind enemy lines – those are the triggers that will knock you off balance and expose you to danger.

So, think about what usually gets on your nerves during the holidays and expect this to be activated under pressure. Anticipate how you can avoid this. Maybe it’s a particular family member, or a particular theme or discussion that triggers you. Decide whether it really matters, and if you want to confront this or if it can wait until after the holidays when tensions and pressure have lowered.

Holidays are for perfection. Though probably not this particular holiday. This one should just be good enough.

Seek out your own private sanctuary

Holidays are for togetherness. However, excessive togetherness can be suffocating, even to the born-and-bred extrovert. In military units there is a saying: “We all have a breaking point” – that goes for holiday togetherness too.

With all the pressure of the holidays, it can be hard and feel wrong to take out, to slow down and to unwind. As pointed out by my colleagues at IMD you are actually less likely to take time to rest and reflect when under mounting pressure. The future benefits of taking a break right now cannot compete with the immediate payoff of yet another activity right now – a cognitive bias called hyperbolic discounting. Over time you may forfeit not just your health and well-being but any opportunity to reorient your approach.

But even in the pace of the holiday program, you always have more time than you think. You decide how to spend your time. Sometimes a break can be as simple as closing the door for two minutes to ground yourself in the present. So, allow yourself to focus on at least one daily activity that gives you pure joy and energy and remember to allow others space for theirs. Sometimes those rituals are the first we give up under pressure. We consider them a luxury and not a necessity. Just when we need it the most, we stop doing it.

Give the work back to others

Holidays are for generosity. But the most important gift you can give may feel a bit stingy.

Many of us are used to being leaders or figures of authority at home as well. Ronald Heifetat Harvard Kennedy School, has a term that really makes sense during the holidays: “giving the work back to the people”. He notes that some people have a habit of placing their own problems and challenges on other people’s plates and asking for a solution.

If you are generous person by nature this, could be one of your core challenges this holiday. Giving the work back is hard. Especially if you feel that you are the one doing the work best.

So, when your dearest and nearest ask you for yet another favor during the holidays – try to find a way to give “the work” of solving their issues back to them, rather than piling more work on your own existential to-do list.

Mind the basics, monitor and regulate yourself

Holidays are for compassion. Yet, the person you often forget to be compassionate towards is yourself.

It can be harder than it sounds to be present in the moment and compassionate for others during the holidays, especially if you are faced with existential concerns around your job, future, identity and life. We often fall in to certain “thought loops” – images, fears, reactions – that we repeat to ourselves every time we think about those big questions.

Next time, try to think a little bit differently about it – add a new idea, find a new angle to gradually adapt and change. For example: If you are facing a tough decision in the new year and are worrying about the heartache, shame or financial concerns it may entail, try do think of something you can do in the first week of 2022 that will make you stronger. What kind of survivor you will be? Sharing your concerns with other can often help you normalize problems and find answers.

The “good enough” holiday period 

Holidays are for perfection. Though probably not this particular holiday. This one should just be good enough. 

Those who manage to handle the pressure of the holidays have worked on their resilience and goals, they take breaks, regulate themselves and they “give the work back.” They have figured outhow to activate their coping strategies and find their feet, when it all becomes a bit too much. And they know their own reaction patterns – both constructive and destructive – well enough to avoid going off the rails.

Despite these coping techniques, getting through the holidays during a crisis will require self-reliance and confidence. Setbacks will be inevitable, unless you shy away from celebrating the holidays in generalHowever, as long as you fight for what you believe in and stay true to your authentic voice, the defeats will just be aggravating, rather than existential.

Do away with perfectionism and strive for a “good enough” holiday where you can face setbacks, and evenexperience a couple of less than perfect momentss, but stop short of losing yourself.

Authors

Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg

Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg

Adjunct Professor at IMD

Dr. Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg is a clinical psychologist who specializes in organizational psychology. As an executive advisor, she has more than two decades of experience developing executive teams and leaders, and she runs her own business psychology practice with industry-leading clients in Europe and the US in the financial, pharmaceutical, consumer products and defense sectors, as well as family offices. Merete is the author of the book Battle Mind: How to Navigate in Chaos and Perform Under Pressure.

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