Why Our Christmas Fantasy Can Ruin the Reality

12/12/2012 13:54 GMT | Updated 12/12/2012 13:54 GMT

At no other time of year is the gap between our fantasy of how things should be and the reality of how they really are wider than at Christmas. The bombardment of Christmas-related advertising right now clearly doesn't help. If you believe the ads, on Christmas Day we will all sit down to vast, perfectly prepared dinners with our large, happy, functional families. Everyone will get an expensive present. No-one will get drunk, have a screaming row, or have to spend the day alone.

In reality, of course, especially in recession Britain, things are far less rosy for millions of people across the country. Many families won't be able to afford a turkey this year, let alone the flashy gifts that all those ads tell us we absolutely must buy for each other. And even if we are lucky enough to have a job, some spare cash and a family to spend it on, our beliefs about how things should/must/have to be at Christmas can crank up the pressure to levels guaranteed to make the big day itself a source of stress and unhappiness.

As a cognitive therapist, I am constantly on the lookout for these 'maladaptive' beliefs - the ideas we have about ourselves, other people and life in general that are the root cause of all mental suffering. For example, if we hold the belief that 'Everyone has to get on well on Christmas Day,' the slightest hint of alcohol-fuelled discord will make us stressed and anxious.

If we believe 'I must buy my kids the same expensive presents their friends get,' but we are struggling to make ends meet, again we are likely to stress ourselves out. They don't know it yet, but what kids really need from their parents is time, love and attention, not the latest flashy gadget that will probably be broken or gathering dust under their bed by Easter.

To give yourself the happiest Christmas possible, watch out for all those musts, shoulds and have tos ('I must cook a perfect meal/should have a partner to share the day with/have to be the life and soul to make sure things go smoothly'). Aim for a good enough Christmas, whatever your financial or family situation, and you will be much more likely to have an enjoyable day.

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