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Holidays are complicated.
Reality doesn’t always live up to the expectations we generate in the buildup. No matter the effort we put into preparations, there is often that residual, nagging feeling that we did not quite manage to conjure the emotional bliss we crave.
Meanwhile, my Instagram feed tells a completely different story.
As I look at people I know and people I don’t united in their relentless display of merriment and happiness, families in matching pajamas, all together for the holidays either in their perfect homes or picturesque holiday locations, a poisonous thought from my old repertoire seeps in: what is wrong with me?
The contrast between how we expect life to look and how it actually feels can be startling and is known to lead to depression.
The truth is that what we post on social media often has little to do with our inner state of mind, while we all strive to fit in with some imaginary life served up to us by lifestyle brands and influencers as the new standard.
I am reminded of an episode from several years ago when we had to move houses in December and, in a desperate attempt to make my life marginally easier, I decided to skip holiday decorations.
I expected my daughters’ disappointment, but I was not prepared to hear one of them announce that for her these holidays were always associated with, among other things, drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows by the fireplace. It was when she said “the fireplace” that I realized that no matter what I do I could never satisfy my daughter’s expectations: we never had a fireplace! Nor do we live in a climate that requires one.
Our expectations of life are now influenced by images that have little to do with our own reality.
Our children measure their childhood experience against every other parent on the planet’s attempts to give their children “the best” life, but also against the multi-gazillion-dollar marketing machine which plays up to all of our insecurities and inadequacies at once.
When my daughters were younger, I also was driven by desire to make their lives as perfect as possible. Why? Because my own childhood did not look like a Disney cartoon.
Born in the Soviet Union, as a child, I was entertained by one heavily censored TV channel, where the only thing they tried to sell us was Communist Utopia and the picture was in various shades of black and white. My imagination was much more receptive to the many luscious full-color channels of American TV, which I got access to when my family moved to the United States when I was a teenager. Consumerism is far better looking than communism.
I am not unique in my desire to make the life of my children everything that mine was not. The way we parent is often either to recreate the nostalgic and idealized memories of our own childhood, or to compensate for everything that it was not.
How we navigate our entire adult lives and all our relationships is basically a dialogue with our past.
Although we grow up and leave home, our childhood experiences are embedded in us: how we were raised and nurtured in childhood is how we feel about ourselves and all our assumptions about the world and other people in it. What drives us are our unconscious reflexes, not conscious choices. We are not really engaged with our reality but are compensating for the inadequacies and feelings of lack from the past.
It is no wonder our lives feel unfulfilled: we are not really focused on them.
To be an adult is to make our own decisions, not based on what we are told to think and believe. It is only when we liberate ourselves from the need to satisfy other people’s expectations and stop repeating inherited fears and anxieties that we are able to truly engage with life and the world as it unfolds in our lifetime.
Most of the people I work with are so paralyzed by their attachment to the way things have always been done and anticipated judgment of others that they are unable to initiate changes that would allow them to live on their own terms. No matter how accomplished, we navigate our whole lives from the perspective of a wounded child, forever feeling “not enough” and dependent on approval of higher authority.
We have to take the power over our lives back by becoming our own authority and learning to parent ourselves.
We need to understand what happened in our past, where our wounds come from, accept our experiences, learn from them, conclude that it was not our fault, and then decide that we’ll never allow ourselves to become someone else’s victim again. It becomes a journey of self-knowledge, self-love, and compassion: the realization that we are no longer the helpless and innocent children we were when our traumas occurred, as we step into our own power from here on out.
Our parents shape the nature of our reality in a way that is unquestionable when we are children.
However, what served our parents or grandparents well is no longer applicable to our rapidly changing lives, and will certainly be obsolete in the future world of our children. Moreover, some of the choices made by previous generations have led our planet to the brink of ecological disaster.
The whole future of our children depends on our and their ability to think critically and independently, in order to reverse the damage done by the wrong choices made in the past.
As we get to know and accept ourselves as we are, we let go of the desire to be perfect, and stop relying on achievement and acquisition for self-value. We free ourselves from the need to compare ourselves to others and from other people’s expectations of us, because we have become our own ultimate authority, secure in knowing exactly what we want and need.
As we become self-responsible, we understand that our life depends on our own choices and actions in the now.
It is no longer about proving ourselves to somebody else, but deciding how we want to lead our lives in accordance with our own values and truth.
Deconditioning from family and societal limiting beliefs requires courage and independence of thought, but is necessary for us to step into our full unique self-expression. What we are missing more than anything now are connections based on emotional transparency, which most of us did not learn from our families.
Our parents and grandparents lived in a world dramatically different from ours. Many have lived through wars or emigration, where the only way to survive was to detach from emotions and the pain of staggering losses.
When we were children, absence of emotion may have been taught to us as a display of character and strength, but this has not served us well, as reflected in the depression statistics and the startling rise in opioid and medication use, the divorce percentages and the ever-increasing suicide rates.
When we withhold emotions, pretending to find strength in hiding our soft spots under a veneer of perfection and smiley satisfaction, there is no space for vulnerability—no way to share sadness, express feelings of doubt, or to ask for help. As a result, our relationships are often built on a sense of obligation, rather than an authentic exchange of warmth, love, support, forgiveness, and understanding.
Family gatherings during holidays can reactivate in us a lot of our old conditioning and unhealed wounds.
It takes courage to initiate the honest conversations needed to upgrade some of our relationships. However, when we free ourselves from childhood “default settings” and act from the position of empowered adults, we can express ourselves without fear, knowing that we will not be unbalanced by someone else’s reactive behavior. We must also be willing to revise our own attitudes about our parents, understanding that children often focus only on certain aspects of their parents, unable to understand the complexity of their parents’ lives.
Real soul nourishment only comes from vulnerable connections, based on acceptance, forgiveness, understanding, and compassion.
As we master our own relationships with our parents and siblings, we can teach our children what honest communication means. Once our relationships become more authentic and nourishing, we no longer need to focus our attention outside of ourselves, making comparisons with other people’s lives. We can start accepting our children for who they are, allowing them to self-express in the safety of knowing that they are loved regardless of how they compare to others. Then we teach them to make decisions based on what feels right, even if different from what others are doing, reinforcing their confidence in remaining the unique individuals that they are.
So, what have I personally found is the key to more enduring fulfilment?
Unfiltered self-expression and greater simplicity of life.
Cultivating more honest communication without avoiding difficult subjects has transformed my own relationships with my parents. I have fewer friends, but with them I can express my innermost secrets without fear of judgement and rejection.
As I attune to my own needs and learn to instill clear boundaries, I try to shift the relationship with my partner from codependent to interdependent. Since I gave up seeking perfection, my relationships with my children have become grounded in honesty and telling it like it is, which gives them a much more realistic view on life and the complexity of relationships.
As my improved connection with family and friends fills my emotional needs, I have simultaneously freed myself from all competition with others and let go of my attachment to possessions, dramatically simplifying my life and lightening the pressure on finances.
We cannot achieve the emotional bliss we crave immediately. Honest relating takes practice, self-confidence, and lots of love. But it is an excellent filter to see which relationships in our lives are real. Those who love us will be interested in staying on no matter what our lives look like. And nothing beats the comfort and feeling of coming home when we share our heart openly, not afraid to proclaim to the world exactly who we are.
That is the kind of safety and stability that an abundance of possessions we’ve been taught to strive for will never be able to provide us.