I have always loved the idea from the winter holidays. Each year, I look forward to driving through the misty Northern California countryside to reduce a tree at the same farm I visited growing up. I cherish lighting the ornate brass menorah my brother-in-law provided when he joined our family. And that i eagerly await the unwrapping extravaganza in my living room on Christmas morning.

But truth be told, sometimes I realize I’m not enjoying the holiday season very much. 

In reality, I spend a lot of the season anxiously making to-do lists, jostling for parking spaces, and losing sleep fretting about whether everyone had a good time during that day’s festivities. By the time New Year’s comes around, I’m exhausted and depleted — and also at times I find myself vowing “never again.” 

Most of my unhappiness originates from trying to do too much in not enough time, leaving no mental space to look around and think, How wonderful. 

Worse, by placing a lot emphasis on providing a just-right holiday experience, I put pressure on family and friends, transferring my overwrought expectations and knife-edge emotions towards the very people I’m hoping to please. 

Last year, as my loved ones frantically cleaned bathrooms and rolled out cookie dough before our annual Christmas-carol sing-along, my older daughter waved a sponge in the air and called out, “This is supposed to be fun?!” 

And on Christmas Eve, when i headed off to wrap presents, I overheard my younger daughter mournfully remarking to her sister that this was the third year in a row they’d watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas without me. She confided that they wished I’d just leave the presents in bags and hang out with them. 

But even with her comment ringing in my ears and tears welling in my eyes, I couldn’t leave those gifts unwrapped.

The Problem With Perfect

“Often what’s going on underneath perfectionism is a desire for control,” says Kristine Oller, a Los Angeles–based coach which specializes in change strategy for creative professionals. “Using the holidays, this can manifest as a desire to recapture something you had at some stage in the past. But the thing about memories is they’re our own little edited movies. When we try to make an experience turn out in a certain style, we set ourselves up for disappointment.” 

Fear of judgment is yet another dynamic that’s at play for many of us.

“Maybe we’re afraid we’ll seem self-indulgent and lazy when we don’t drive and push ourselves,” suggests Kristin Neff, PhD, associate professor of human psychology and culture in the University of Texas, Austin, and author of Self-Compassion. 

These joy-killing forces don’t just modify the makers of holiday feasts. Those people who are expected to show up for all the planned services, performances, and gift exchanges face similarly high expectations to be appreciative and happy.  

It is possible, though, to transform holiday stress. These expert tips might help us reframe our thinking and make saner choices so we can approach this busy time of year with more ease and enjoyment. 

Hit Reset

Reduce self-induced stress and revel in more of what matters throughout the holidays with these tips.

Rethink Your Priorities

As you are making your lists, take a moment to look at everything you’re planning — and then do a reality check on what it’s going to take to accomplish it all. 

“Your point of view will start to change, and you’ll see what you’re doing to yourself,” says productivity expert David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. “It might be much easier to say no once you see everything you’ve agreed to.” 

As you narrow your list to priorities it is possible to manage, make a second list: what you’d like yourself and others to experience. “No. 1 out there might be fun, for example. Make a deal with your family and friends that if you’re not having fun, you’ll blow the whistle and rethink what you’re doing.” 

Learn to allow Go

When we’re shooting for perfection, everything seems to have equal weight, explains Oller. “But when you don’t want to exhaust yourself, you have to ask yourself which things you allow go of.” 

This isn’t easy. When you turn down an invitation or announce that this year’s pies are going to be store-bought, someone’s going to be unhappy, and others’ disappointment can be difficult to tolerate. 

“It can feel almost unbearable, at least in that moment,” Oller notes. “And when you don’t want to feel those feelings, you’ll pull yourself in every direction trying to control everything to ensure that everyone is happy.”

A healthier alternative is to gradually test and strengthen your tolerance for disappointing — or at best not pleasing — others. Otherwise you’re trading momentary comfort for lasting burnout. 

Replace Self-Judgment With Self-Compassion

Often, our holiday stress comes down to concern about what other people think or expect people. “When we are afraid of being judged, it’s usually because we are harsh judges — of others and particularly of ourselves,” says Oller. 

One method to change your perspective is to imagine a friend in your situation, suggests psychology professor and compassion researcher Kristin Neff. Treat yourself with the same nonjudgmental kindness you would offer that individual.

“Ask yourself, If my friend were freaking out about Thanksgiving dinner, what can I say? You wouldn’t say, ‘You’ll never understand it properly!’ or ‘It’s going to be failing!’ You would naturally and instinctually be warm, supportive, and reassuring. 

“You’ve already got these skills, which you’ve designed to support those you care about. Self-compassion is all about giving yourself permission to use those skills for yourself.” 

Ask for Help

Whether or otherwise your family and friends share your feelings about the holidays, there’s no question that stress could be contagious, says Allen. “Your kids or your partner may be thinking, I hope you don’t get stressed out like you did last year — and then they’ll get nervous, too.” 

Allen recommends open and clear communication. Get all relevant parties in thinking about the ideal holiday experience, what's most and least important, and how each person can chip in. 

“You are able to say, ‘Hey guys, I’d enjoy having as fun a holiday as possible. Here’s my list of what I’d like to create, but I don’t want to run the show by myself. What’s important to you and how would you like to be involved?’” Make it a group effort.  

Taking Advice to Heart

For me, relaxing throughout the holidays will involve loosening my attachment to an idealized past. For example, I’ve always bought everyone in the family new pajamas and slippers to wear on Christmas Eve, but it’s no longer easy to find something they’ll wear. 

“Try considering what was so special about that experience,” Oller suggests. “You’ll realize it was because it felt cozy and allowed everyone to become silly.” 

She’s absolutely right. It had been never about the PJs. It had been about the experience. So this year we’re planning to chill out more, be cozy and silly, and laugh a great deal. And as long as that happens, it will be a good holiday.