people gathered at a table

3 Steps to Banishing Holiday Guilt

By Homaira Kabir
December 21, 2021

As far as traditions go, our lives before COVID-19 were pretty much handed to us like the Olympic torch. We did things the way they’d always been done, albeit propelled by marketing engines that made sure everything became bigger and “better” over time.

Nowhere is this more visible, perhaps, than during the holiday season. Come November, most of us become consumed by the expectations placed on us around gift-giving, socializing, and entertaining. And because we rarely had the opportunity to question those expectations, much less alter them, they became the obligations we placed on ourselves.

Much of this changed two years ago, at the height of the pandemic, when we needed to downscale the holiday celebrations for obvious reasons. Despite the circumstances, some relished the freedom and peace of mind that came with it. Being forced to take a year off from running around from mall to mall like a headless chicken, or hopping from party to party, turned out to not be so terrible after all.

The world had given us permission to do things differently. It was a silver lining. And it felt good.

This year, though, the permission slips are gone. The world is back to running faster than ever, almost as though trying to make up for lost time or less fun. And those of us who enjoyed the break from expectations are feeling pressured, if not by others, by our consciences.

Maybe you're one of those people. Maybe you don’t want to buy a mountain of presents, especially since supply chain delays might result in shortages. Maybe you want to be selective in whom you get together with and retain your quality time for those who are truly important in your life. Maybe this year. Maybe always.

3 Steps to Getting Rid of Guilt This Holiday Season

How are you to honor your truth without hurting others or feeling guilty about it? Here’s a three-step decision-making process that can help.

1. Listen to Your Emotions

Your emotions are important messengers from the inner world of needs and values. And yet it’s difficult to listen to negative emotions because we’re wired to run away from pain.

Say you're angry because you feel you must host a huge holiday dinner. You may offload your anger onto others and end up hurting them, suppress the feeling, and burn with resentment. Or you may give in to guilt and play host even if it brings you no joy, or is a drain on your time, energy, and financial resources, instead of facing up to what that anger is trying to tell you.

In order to properly receive the message, you must first recognize your angst and be with yourself in compassion. Place your hands on your heart if it helps, and say something kind to yourself: "This is tough, and I know you’re trying to do the right thing."

Self-compassion centers us. It shifts us from the threat response to one that's based on our values. Instead of feeding our emotions with our thoughts and justifications, we can appreciate multiple perspectives and arrive at creative and pro-social decisions.

2. Understand the Underlying Values

Once you feel centered, bring curiosity to your emotions. This is important because many of us judge our feelings. We label them as good or bad instead of recognizing that they’re generated from the implicit world that we don’t control.

As Susan David, Ph.D., wrote in her book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, “Emotions are data, they are not directives.” The more we can see them that way, the more we’ll know which ones to act on—and which ones to safely let go.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself that can help:

  • What am I feeling?
  • Where does this feeling come from?
  • Is it true in the current situation?

If the answer to the last question is “not at all,” let it go. If somewhat yes, ask the following:

  • What values does it point to?
  • Are there values that it conflicts with? How do I know?
  • How can I live my most important values in the long term?

3. Ask Your Future Self

The decisions we make around expectations—of others and ourselves—are often complex and ambiguous. When we're caught between wanting to go low-key this season, for the sake of our bank account and stress level, or organizing Friendsgiving, a holiday cookie exchange, and New Year's brunch because we feel like everyone is counting on it, we tend to look for a rational, pros-versus-cons solution. But rational solutions aren’t enough because they often rely on certainty and not truth.

To make a decision that allows us to be who we want to be in the world, we need to turn off our heads and turn on our hearts. As Nobel Memorial Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., writes in his latest book, Noise, once we’ve engaged our reasoning capacities, we need to turn to intuition to guide our final decision.

A great way of doing so is to connect with your future self. Bring this older, wiser version of you to mind, the person you’d become if you made the right decisions in life. Imagine you’re sitting with your future self and ask them the following questions about your current dilemma:

  • What is the one thing that guided your decision?
  • What else do I need to know?
  • What should I keep in mind as I go through this holiday season?

Remember, there’s no right or wrong answer. But when you arrive at it in this structured way, you can be sure of one thing: Your answer will honor both you and your relationships.

Guilt lurks in the shadowy place between expectation and execution, where we tie ourselves in knots trying to make someone else's vision a reality. Letting go of it means being guided by our own North Star. When we follow the path that upholds our values and honors our inner voice, we can act according to our own expectations with confidence—and without guilt.

Homaira is a coach, writer, and researcher who helps women build grounded confidence in order to live their most successful lives. Take her free quiz to find out if your confidence is grounded, or fragile.

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