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Vacation-time, especially year-end, is an interesting time in my practice. Not only do I have lots of time to sharpen my Sudoku skills, because of the spate of cancellations I have at this time of year, but I am also privileged to have a sneak preview of my clients’ anticipated holidays. The sneak previews I love, especially if they take me to interesting places on my bucket list… but invariably these conversations lead to discussions about the accompanying family dynamics that often blemish these idyllic pictures.

Parents feel resentful for having to put up with their demanding and entitled offspring – many mothers say: “I have to do everything on holiday” (especially when it is self-catering); children feel pressure from parents to spend time with them, particularly when they see their parents infrequently; and spouses often feel cheated because they feel that their partners are going to have more of a holiday then they will (catching up on as many golf games as possible). Sometimes couples feel that the holiday will be ‘crunch time’ (a client’s words) to see if their relationship is sustainable. With such family and relationship pressures condensed into a couple of weeks it is no wonder that difficult family dynamics and conflict are part and parcel of the festive season.

Back home the post-holiday blues often set in, starting with having to deal with the consequences of the inevitable holiday excesses. Having spent too lavishly, many people come back to the depressing reality of a credit card that is maxed out, while others struggle to lose the 3kg they gained. Not to mention dealing with the frustration of not having lost the 5kg they wanted to, before embarking on the ‘gastronomical fest’ that the holiday turned out to be. Losing weight is never fun, especially not when there is no money to suppress food cravings with retail therapy.

Then there is the stress of a year ahead and career demands, that were deliberately put on the backburner so as to not interfere with holiday plans, that many people have to contend with. And .. the New Year’s resolutions, the dreamy holiday commitments, made so single-mindedly away from the reality of everyday life - that keep us wide awake to 2 in the morning when we should be fast asleep. And for some, these have the potential to become another stick to beat ourselves up with.

But most burdensome are the damaged relationships that have to be mended. This is the time of year when I often hear clients say: “I can’t do family holidays anymore – they are just too stressful.” And then in the same breath I hear those same clients say: “I only get three weeks holiday a year and now I have nothing to look forward to.” I suppose bitter-sweet best describes this paradox. Fortunately by March, with the Easter long-weekend to look forward to, and the New Year's resolutions forgotten, and with a bit more financial breathing space, plans for the next summer holiday start taking shape, as a revised version of the holiday emerges. And I suppose this is how we deal with the ups and downs of our familial and close relationships as well – remembering and holding on to the good while navigating through the difficult patches.

There are two important things to do to prevent a repeat of such a bitter-sweet family holiday: (1) manage your expectations better and (2) create snapshot moments.

Our expectations inform how we look at our lives and experiences. They play a huge part in how happy we are. Happiness is a relative state; it is a perception of reality (or of our feelings and experiences) viewed through the lenses of our expectations.

Happiness = Reality/Expectations.

To manage one’s expectations is to look at a situation realistically. For example, if you have never really gotten on with your brother, spending Christmas with him at your family home will probably not be a blast. If you accept this as a fact, and don’t blame him, or yourself, for the difficult relationship, your expectation could be tempered to: not spending too much time together (versus avoiding each other); being cordial at family gatherings; and not allowing this relationship to define the whole holiday.

Or, if you feel pressurised to see your parents every day while holidaying in Cape Town, ask yourself what advice you would give your best friend in this situation, and follow that advice. You would probably suggest that they (your hypothetical best friend) have to manage their parents’ expectations before the start of the holiday. ‘We have had a tough year and need some time to connect ….’, for example.

Or, if your partner starts dusting off their golf clubs early in November and starts googling all the courses in a 100km radius of where you are going to spend your vacation, and if you don’t play golf, talk about it before you go, ensuring that they don’t feel guilty about their next game; that you have lots of time to plan something interesting to do; and, that you can reach a compromise that will be acceptable to both of you. If you don’t do it beforehand, simple misunderstandings can become the repositories of dormant issues - like not feeling important or respected, or feeling controlled.

Snapshot moments are about enjoying experiences in the moment. Many years ago, I imagined myself in my colourful office with its lovely stained glass window and little fish pond, having a meaningful conversation with a client. Then I recalled a scene from a movie where a therapist, in an office filled with books and a big tree outside the window, was having a really meaningful discussion with a client. As I thought of the movie, I remembered thinking at the time: 'Wow, that is where I want to be', only to realise that it is actually like that every day in my own life. From that moment I started taking snapshots of my life as it was happening. Instead of living life after the event when selecting photos for one’s Facebook page, snapshot moments are about stopping in a moment and saying to oneself: ‘if I saw this on a photo or in a movie…’ So when you are walking along the sea-shore, or sitting at a sidewalk café, or getting Christmas lunch ready with family or friends, stop and imagine seeing it in a movie. I can assure you that if you had seen any of these scenes in a movie you would want to be there.

Enjoy the snapshot moments of your holiday consciously while they are happening and not only as memories months and years later.

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