The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.
For a recent holiday dinner party, I had the bright idea to serve raclette, the Swiss, cheese-based dish that requires an electric cheese-roasting machine, for lack of a more technical term. On the day of, I went to two grocery stores (the first didn't have the right cheese), raced home to clean my house and even had time to primp a bit. Things could not have been running more smoothly until I realized I had no idea where the aforementioned cheese machine was.
And yeah, I know (insert lame first-world-problem joke here), but I had a fridge full of expensive, stinky cheeses and eight guests due to arrive at any minute – I was freaked. After an unsuccessful sweep of the kitchen I descended into a state of panicked fury. I was mad at everyone: my mom for not answering her phone (I thought the machine was at her place); my boyfriend (he couldn't produce a cheese cooker by snapping his fingers); and of course myself.
If I were the wall-punching type, I would have punched the wall, which I realize is totally inappropriate, off-base and counterproductive – but we've all been there, right? Thanks to Hallmark and Martha Stewart and the people in the Pier One catalogues, the holidays have become as much about the pursuit of perfection as comfort and joy.
You better watch out, you better not cry …
In a matter of hours, many of us will host or attend the Super Bowl of holiday gatherings. The bad news is that your pervy uncle/intrusive cousin/judgmental father probably hasn't gotten any less pervy/nosy/judge-ie in the last year. Also, there's a good chance something will go wrong with the meal. And if there are children in the mix, at least one of them will be on the downturn of a Christmas-morning sugar rush. The good news is we have a lot more control over our holiday anxiety than we might realize.
For many people, being around family can unearth childhood insecurities, so if your mom says something critical about your Christmas sweater, all of a sudden you'll be 15 years old again and fighting the urge to run up to your room and slam the door. Instead, try taking three deep breaths before responding to any situation, whether it be a perceived insult, an overcooked bird or a missing cheese machine.
Deepak Chopra recommends this technique, and takes it a step further: "I let my liver and my heart and stomach smile at the same time," he says. Apparently this is a good way to shift your mood, and while the idea of a smiling liver strikes me as a bit absurd (particularly at this time of year when I'm pretty sure my liver is holding up a white flag), the guiding principle – that we choose how we react to any given situation – makes a lot of sense.
There are worse things than canned cranberries
Last week Babble parenting blogger Ellen Seidman wrote about her decision to "care less" this holiday season – to simplify where possible and to quit trying to be "so damn meticulous" about everything. "I was already thinking about this before the Newtown tragedy, and then when something like that happens you realize that the only thing that matters is your family," she says.
Much of the caring-less mantra involves relinquishing control and letting other people do things their way. For example, Seidman recommends avoiding the compulsion to be a holiday martyr and instead, let guests bring different parts of the meal. True, it's possible someone will show up with (gasp!) canned cranberry sauce, but doesn't a calm and convivial dinner experience trump a homemade condiment? (Full disclosure: Two years ago I nearly erupted when my mom served mashed sweet potatoes instead of a classic mash. The situation climaxed with my mom throwing a handful of sweet potato in the direction of my ungrateful face. I like to think I have grown up a lot since then.)
Regardless of what holiday you celebrate, this time of year should be about creating memories, and the simple fact is that few of us will remember all of these tiny details that congeal into giant mounds of stress. So what's the point? The philosophy of positive psychology suggests that by not sweating the small stuff we are building up a reserve for life's more significant challenges. In other words – each of us possesses a tank of resilience – do you really want to waste gas on mismatched Christmas crackers?
Going back to the raclette incident, I took my three deep breaths, realized the ridiculousness of the situation and started making plans to serve ham and cheese sandwiches. And then of course, I found the cursed appliance. Not exactly the Christmas miracle I would have chosen, but I guess the message is we need to take what we're given, be grateful and relax (for goodness sake).
The next challenge: Ruminate on your New Year's resolutions past. Which ones worked and which ones went bust by the first week of January? Do you think you'll have more success in 2013? Let us know at fb.me/globelifestream.