Do you dread family gatherings because you know how exhausted you'll be afterwards? Fortunately, Lydia Levleva, a psychologist and coach, is on hand to help

How to enjoy a stress-free Christmas - Women's Health & Fitness

The problem with holidays is that we tend to load the season with expectations and agendas (conscious and unconscious) that are unlikely to ever be fulfilled. When we drag these lofty expectations into holiday family gatherings, they breed disappointment, frustration, and worse – anger and resentment - all heaped on top of past memories. It’s a bit like piling all the Christmas lunch leftovers onto a plate and pulling it out for lunch the next day – pretty messy, unappetising, and overwhelming.

Part of the problem is in expecting our families to conform (i.e., ‘function’) to some imagining of ‘normal’, because there is no such thing as ‘normal’! Believing in it only maintains a gap between what is and what one would prefer. (As the saying goes:  Mind the Gap!) What’s more conducive to a harmonious gathering is to choose to view our differences as uniqueness, to be appreciated, not abhorred.

As well as releasing relatives from narrow criteria and judgment, you need also to free yourself from the confines of an outmoded role and real or imagined expectations. This can be tricky – if you’ve experienced less-than-joyous family occasions, naturally you anticipate ‘more of the same’ and arm yourself ready for fight or flight at the slightest provocation. But if you can do it, the exciting outcome of your authenticity is that you’ll invite a more satisfying experience, with less effort (let’s face it, defences and pretences take a ton of energy to maintain). Why? In part because when you’re not on the defensive, you won’t attract the attacks you might expect and have experienced. Attack is an unconscious thing we do to dismantle barriers to genuine connection, a little like when dogs sense fear. So suddenly you may find that others also relax and let down their guard, and that genuine relating starts to occur. It may seem magical.

Of course, there are limits to what can be considered acceptable.  I am not advising abandoning self-protection where warranted. Nor will I pretend it’s going to be easy – accepting more and expecting less can take courage (which, interestingly, means to have heart). Heart is a muscle – the more you use it, the stronger it gets.  So, instead of going in with dread and fear – trying going in with more heart …
Loving kindness meditations go a long way towards facilitating this inner process.

Lydia is a Sydney-based consultant ( and lectures in the Masters of Wellness program at RMIT University (

Next: Find out how to wind down for Christmas or browse some festive recipes.

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